Friday, February 27, 2009

Hong You - The Red and The Oil

Red oil, or chili oil, or hot pepper oil, is a common condiment. It's generally sesame oil that has had hot peppers soaked in it until the oil becomes spicy. Because oil tends to cling to your mouth, red oil can give you a spicier experience than the peppers themselves.

The best way to clear your mouth of hot oil is not a cold drink, but rather a mouthful of plain rice. You need something to absorb the oil off your skin. A cold drink will make the oil congeal a little.

How to remember it? I haven't got a memory aide for this one. The left side means thread (we saw a squished version in the Chicken character), and the right means work. While we'll see lots of threads in future, that I-beam on the right is not so common so I mainly remember that. (I think there is one other word that is commonly used in restaurants, but I can't remember it right now.)

I mainly remember it by context. So, if you see that I-beam next to oil, you probably have red oil. Here is a variation on one of my favorite Sichuan appetizers. You know the second two characters from just a couple of days ago:
The Pinyin spelling is hóng or hong2 (second tone).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

You - a saucy oil

You means oil or sauce. See the three dots of the water radical on the left. When you see this, it doesn't usually mean fried, although in a few cases it does. (Oil Stick 油條 is the name for the crullers you can order with your congee, for instance.) You'll see it most often in reference to various flavors of oils and sauces (like soy sauce or jiang you 醬油).

Since the word is pretty much the same word as "squid" which is pretty much the same as "excellent" in spoken Mandarin, you can see here how important the tones are in Chinese.

I mentioned earlier that the water radical has two variations (neither of which look much like the main character). Here is an example of you in a different font, with the other version of the water radical.

How to recognize You: it looks like a bottle, with the water radical hanging off the left side. (You know how oil has a way of dripping down the side of the bottle, right?)

The Pinyin spelling is yóu or you2 (second tone)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jiao Zi - My Little Dumpling

I consider this to be the most important word in cuisine. The simple Chinese dumpling. It has many varieties, and many names, but jiao is the basic one. You will usually see it with at least one other character: either shui 水 (water/boiled) or zi 子 (little thing) or both 水餃子. Jiao zi 餃子 is pronounced jowd-zuh (first syllable low, the ending high). When the dumplings are pan-fried, they have a completely different name guo tie 鍋貼, or pot-sticker.

How to recognize: The left side of the character is the radical shi 食, and it means "food" or "eat". (We'll learn it soon.) It also kind of looks like a little vendor's cart or hut. The right side looks like a little guy in a wide brimmed hat, and it means something like "buy" or "exchange". So think of the guy as a little food vendor, and he sells dumplings out of his little food cart on the left.

They are boiled dumplings, so the sign over his cart says this:

The Pinyin spelling is jiǎo zi, jiao3 zi (third tone, neutral tone)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Shui Niu Rou - A Review

Here's a dish you might find on a lot of menus. Sometimes it will have additional characters (and we'll get to them later), but often just these three.

And you've seen these three characters, at least if you've been reading from the beginning. Do you remember them?

Here are some hints from the "how to remember" sections of those posts. Shui 水 looks like a waterfall. Niu 牛 represents something associated with the American West, and looks like a telegraph pole (though it is NOT a telegraph pole). Rou 肉 looks kind of like rib cage.

This is a simple dish and when you know the translation, it sounds very plain and bland, but it is far from that. While it's often mild, it is always flavorful from the main ingredient, and usually seasoned with five-spice, although in a Sichuan restaurant it might be seasoned with chilis and be quite spicy.

So what is it? Boiled beef. (Water Cow Meat.) It's pot roast! A rich and flavorful beef brisket in seasoned gravy. Lovely lovely stuff.

Tomorrow you'll learn a new character again. Something commonly boiled or steamed. You won't want to miss that one.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Kou Shui Ji - Mouth-watering or eye-watering?

Here is a full dish you might see on a menu in a Sichuan restaurant. Kou Shui Ji 口水鷄 means "Mouth Watering Chicken" but is sometimes translated as anything from "Drooling Chicken" to "Chicken in Chili Sauce." It's a cold dish of tender poached chicken in a spicy Sichuan chili oil. It is sometimes served with noodles and/or peanuts, and it can be very hot.

Now, you should recognize two of these characters. Shui 水 we just learned yesterday. Ji 鷄, if you remember, has two variations, so the dish might appear as 口水雞.

The first character, though, is new to you. It looks like a square, but in Chinese calligraphy a square is how you draw a circle. It's kou 口 and it means "mouth." You won't see it a lot on menus, which is why I didn't give it it's very own post. You mght see it as a radical or portion of another character, though.

Kou is also something called a "measure word", which is a unit like "handful" or "batch." As far as I can tell, though, it is not used as a measure word in food, but rather refers to a unit of people, like "clan".

The Pinyin spelling is kǒu shuǐ jī, or kou3 shui3 ji1 (third, third, first tones)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Shui - Water Water Everywhere!

Shui means water, and boiled, among other things. It's such a basic thing, that we can now use some of the characters we've already learned to look at the whole names of some simple dishes.

As a radical, it indicates liquid, including oils and sauces. That radical is one that looks different than the base character. It may look like three dots splashing off to the left, as we saw yesterday with hai, or the lower dot could take on a little more structure and look like a bent stick. The difference depends on the font, and I'll try to mix it up in the next few days so you can see both versions in the illustrations. (For those who missed what a radical is, here's the post about radicals.)

How to remember: Shui splashes down like a waterfall, irregular and rushing. The character it most looks like is tree 木. Tree, however is very solid and symmetrical. (Fire 火 also looks a little like water, and so we'll get to that soon too, now that we're into cooking methods. I'll just point out that fire looks more ephemeral, less weighty.)

The Pinyin spelling is shuǐ or shui3 (third tone)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hai - By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea

When a dish has mixed seafood, you won't necessarily see any characters with the familiar fish or bug radicals. Sometimes you'll just see hai 海, which means "sea", or hai xian 海鮮, which means seafood, or literally it means "sea fresh". (Remember fresh? There was a post about fresh....)

The other time you'll see it on menus is a very important place name: Shanghai 上海. The characters mean "Above Sea", which is where Shanghai is placed. Shanghai is used a lot to differentiate an American-style egg roll from a Shanghai-style spring roll. (We'll get to Shanghai 上海 again when we get to regional cuisines.)

How to remember Hai? Hmmmm. The boxy right side reminds me of a fishing net, maybe. But the thing that is most important is the three dots along the left side, because those three dots are going to take us into the next section.

Those three dots, which look like sea water splashing off the character, are the squished version of the radical for ... WATER! Water 水 is what this planet's life is based on. You can't boil or steam or make sauces without water, and you can't draw their characters either. We'll be starting in on water words tomorrow.

The Pinyin spelling is hǎi, hai3 (third tone).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Xian - Don't be Fresh!

Here's an irony for you. "Fishy" and "muttony" are words that are used in most cultures (including Chinese) to describe an icky off-flavor. And yet, look at the word for "Fresh", xian 鮮 and you will see the characters for Fish and Mutton! Maybe it's that those are two things that have to be fresh to taste good. I don't know. I just find it a hoot.

I remember this one because it's ironic. (I remember the fish. I remember the sheep. The fact that the two of them make "fresh" is just ... memorable.)

You mostly see it as a part of the phrase meaning "seafood", which is hai xian 海鮮, or "sea fresh". We'll wrap up our seafood section with that tomorrow.

The Pinyin spelling is xiān or xian1 (first tone).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

You - Attack of the Squid!

Squid is something that will show up on Chinese-only menus. Sometimes it's just you 魷 by itself and sometimes it's you yu 魷魚 - like "squid fish".

And just to make it more interesting, while you's radical is fish, the right side is also the word you 尤, same tone and everything. That character means "outstanding" or "special". This is one of those cases where it is hard to tell whether squid is considered to be an outstanding fish, or if they just use that character because they sound the same. (And the characters end up meaning "fish outstanding-sounding fish".)

Unless cooked perfectly, squid tends get rubbery, so westerners don't like to eat it. But I have this theory that if you see it on the Chinese-only menu, it's more likely to be cooked right. But I could be wrong. (The key to cooking squid, I hear, is that it should be cooked under two minutes, or over two hours. In the first case it doesn't have time to get tough. In the second it is stewed to tenderness.)

How to remember: well that right side looks kind of squiddy to me. The little legs hanging down and looping up and all.

The Pinyin spelling is yóu or you2 (second tone)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Yu - Something Fishy

You've learned about seafood with legs and shells, which tend to use the bug radical. Now we move on to those with fins or tentacles. Yu is just plain fish, but like meat and bird, it is both a radical and a character. It's often used to modify another character, for various kinds of fish and squids and things.

This one is tricky, though. While it certainly means fish, you will see it often on the regular menu on dishes that clearly don't have any fish in them, as Yu Xiang 魚香. The English translations usually say "garlic sauce" on them. What's going on? Does Yu also mean garlic? Nope. What those characters mean is "Fish Fragrant (Sauce)". It's a tasty sweet garlic sauce that goes really well with fish. Kinda like "steak sauce" tastes good on steak, but isn't made of steak.

How to recognize: to me it looks like a Chinese junk boat with the laddered sails, and an extra sail sticking up on top, and oars splashing down below. However, there are a few other characters that look kind of like that. It also looks kind of like a fish tail, with the finny part sticking down. (And sometimes it looks to me like the Darwin symbol people put on their cars -- you know the fish with legs?)

The Pinyin spelling is yú, or yu2 (second tone).

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Long Xia - Lobstah

Riddle: what looks like a cross between a shrimp and a Chinese dragon? A Lobster!

And that's exactly what the Chinese call them, Dragon Shrimp, or long xia 龍蝦. That should be easy to remember. You can review the individual characters by going back to the main entries for Shrimp - Xia, and Dragon - Long.

If a restaurant offers these, you will see them in the big tanks, plotting their escape. The handwritten Chinese signs may mention various ways of cooking them, but will often just have the prices for large 大, medium 中 or small 小. (We'll get to the size characters later.) Up next, something fishy.

Pinyin spelling is lóng xiā, or long2 xia1 (second and first tone).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Long - Enter the Dragon

The dragon character is my favorite character. It's the first one I learned how to draw. You also see posters of Bruce Lee with this character in the background. Like Bruce Lee, it's a stand alone character. It doesn't act as a radical very often. (The simplified version 龙 shows up in other characters sometimes.)

It does appear on most menus in a few contexts, one is "Dragon and Phoenix" a dish of shrimp and chicken, which is pictured below. Note that the character for phoenix is the bird radical inside a little house. Both of these characters stand for "imperial" at times.

To remember it: all those horizontals and verticals make it a pretty recognizable character. It is also kind of fun to draw, so if you practice drawing it, first the left side and then the right, you will remember it.

Stay tuned to tomorrow's post for the most important use of "dragon" for a foodie. (Hint: did you know they grew dragons in Maine?)

The Pinyin spelling is lóng or long2 (second tone)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Xie -- As Crabby As I Wanna Be

Crab is one of those things that often pops up on the hand written "specials" menu, often only in Chinese. If you like crab, it's a character to watch for.

All of the parts in the character for crab are specific food related characters:

On the bottom you see "bug" 虫, which is a good name for custaceans, and that's the most important marker for remembering this character. But there's also a mess of characters above this radical.

On the left side is the radical for "horn" 角, which is an important character for crab lovers, since it is a part of the name for Crab Rangoon (which in Chinese is often called "Fried Crab Horns" 油蟹觡). We'll get to that one when we get to appetizers later on.

On the right are two characters. The top is knife 刀, and in the middle is a character you should know: cow or beef 牛.

Between beef and bug, you should be able to pick out crab when you need to. (Also the top kind of has the look of a couple of pokey crab claws.)

The Pinyin spelling is xiè or xie4 (fourth tone).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Xia - What a Shrimp!

Shrimp and prawns are all over any Chinese menu, so this is definitely one of the important basics.

How to remember it: The bug radical is on the left, but the most unique part of this character is the double loop at the top right. It's like two flags, or perhaps like two sections of a shrimp's body.

For the shrimp-loving Chinese-food afficianado, Xia 蝦 also highlights one more element of Chinese spoken language. Many of you, I'm sure have heard of Har Gow 蝦餃, which is one of the most famous kinds of dumplings served at dim sum houses. And some of you may notice that the first charater is "xia" but the words say "har." That's because Chinese is made up of more than one langauge.

Mandarin is the language of northern China and is what most people mean when they say "Chinese language". Mandarin itself has multiple dialects, but the dialect of Beijing, Putonghua, is considered the standard. (Except in Taiwan they call it Gouyo to separate themselves from Bejing.) All of the Pinyin spellings and pronunciations I give here are standard Mandarin.

The other major language is Cantonese, which is harder to learn because it has even more tones. Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong...and of Dim Sum.

The good news is, both languages use the same characters. Even Japanese uses a lot of the same characters. It's very convenient for those who wish to read a menu.

The Pinyin spelling is xiā, or xia1 (first tone).

Friday, February 6, 2009

Chong - Don't Let It Bug You

Chong means insect, bug, or worm, and you may be relieved to know that you won't see Chong by itself on many menus. Where it's important is that it is a radical for a lot of seafoods and a few other things, like egg 蛋, as I mentioned in the previous post. And that makes sense, because crabs and crawfish and lobsters and prawns and squids and clams are all kind of sea bugs. (I have a New Englander friend who has always called soft-shelled crabs "fried bugs.")

As a radical it usually appears on the bottom, although not always.

I recognize the bug radical because it's simple enough to remember, and because it looks kind of like a bug to me. The square can be eiher a round body or two bulging eyes, and it has twisty stick legs.

The Pinyin spelling is chóng, or chong2 (second tone).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dan - Egg-zactly

I mentioned that zi 子, though it can mean egg, is not the character used for egg in Chinese dishes. The character for egg is dan 蛋.

You'll see it on Egg Drop Soup 蛋花湯 (which actually means "Egg Flower Soup"), and on the package of egg noodles I just bought today: 雞蛋面. (Pop quiz -- you've seen two of those three characters. What kind of eggs were used to make the noodles, and which of those characters must mean "noodles"?)

A great way for English speakers to remember dan is to look at the upper right corner. The strokes form a capital E, for "egg". Unfortunately, you can't always see it when the character is small. So I am also going to point you to the bottom half, which is our next radical: Chong, which means insect (and that will lead us to seafood).

The Pinyin spelling is dàn or dan4 (fourth tone).

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Zi - A Little One

Zi (pronounced kind of like "dze") means child, or seed, or the wee-hours of the morning. You'll see it all over the place on menus, and it just seems to be there as an affectionate diminutive. Like "-ino" in Italian, or "-ette" in French.

I find it the first thing I recognize for some items -- eggplant and some dumplings for instance -- but it often appears with poultry, which is why I have it here. If you see it next to chicken or duck (or quail) it doesn't mean "egg" nor is it a baby duck or chick. It may mean "young", or it may mean small pieces, or it may be just part of the dish name.

One famous Sichuan dish is La Zi Ji 辣子雞 (Sometimes called Chonqing Spicy Chicken). It's hard to tell what the zi refers to in that. It comes after the peppers, so does it refer to the peppers? (It comes after the word it modifies in other dishes.) If so, many versions of this dish involve big poblano-like peppers, so.... is it sarcastic, as in calling a big guy "Little John" or is it more cutesy? Like maybe it means the equivalent of "Hottie Chicken." We'll learn more about this dish when we get to spices and Sichuan in a couple of weeks.

The Pinyin spelling is zǐ, or zi3 (third tone).

Monday, February 2, 2009

Chun - A Quail of a Tale

The last of the common poultry I'm going to mention is quail. Not because it's common of itself (I've never actually come across it in a restaurant) but because the eggs are pretty common. More on eggs soon.

I'm also going to use quail to illustrate an interesting element of spoken Mandarin Chinese -- every word is one syllable. And that's limiting, even when you have four musical tones to add meaning. There are a whole lot of homonyms in Chinese. (Homonyms are words that sound exactly alike but mean very different things). If you go to Mandarin Tools and search their dictionary for "ji" (chicken), you will find 142 entries. Yikes!

Luckily for us, the written version is quite clear, because different meanings use different characters. So if you look at their 142 entries, you will see that only words with closely related meanings have the same character. But even though it's clear when you read it, it's not clear when you speak it, so the Chinese will often use two words together to clarify what they mean. (They also use a lot of puns and metaphors, because, after all, everything you say could refer to something else.)

This is why beef is "cow meat" 牛肉. And it's why with some poultry and most seafood, you will see a lot of repetition. So...

I've most often seen quail as the character at the head of this post: Chun 鶉. But you might see it as An Chun 鵪鶉 - and both characters mean "quail."

How to remember: Well, it's got the bird radical, and it isn't chicken or duck. Soon you will learn a character that will help you remember Chun at least. The left side of Chun is a character that means "enjoy" 享. The top is the same top as for "palace" and "capital city" - a lid over a box. But the bottom half is what might help you remember quail: it's zi 子 (pronounced "dzuh") and it's the word for "little thing". It's an important food word, and we'll get to that before we even get to eggs. It helps us remember quail because quail are little things.

The pinyin spellings for quail is ān or an1 (first tone), and chún or chun2 (second tone).

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ya - Duck Season

Duck is a popular luxury dish, and most Chinese restauants will have at least one special dish, if not several. Peking Duck, Tea-smoked Duck, Crispy Duck. You name it, it's probably tasty.

The radical is the "bird" 鳥 symbol, on the right again. On the left, the part that means duck looks more like a lollipop than a duck. I remember it by picturing a head-and-neck close up of the Aflac Duck, looking straight at you screaming "AFLAC!"

The Pinyin spelling is yā, or ya1 (first tone).