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Culinary Chinese 101: Your First Character…

Chinese 101 01-01

Last month, in an article entitled ‘Culinary Chinese, Anyone?’, I proposed doing a series of posts about Chinese characters related to food with a view to having my readers join me in my progress as I learn the rudiments of reading a Chinese menu. I received quite a few expressions of interest and so I am going to finally get things going…

In the original post, I introduced the character you see appearing (and circled) three times in the above picture. I have chosen this particular character to start off with because, as I mentioned, it is something you will almost have certainly have seen at one time or another (even if you weren’t aware of it) as it appears frequently on restaurant signs, menus, on food packages and on signs in Chinese grocery stores. It may, at the moment, look to you like nothing more than obscure squiggles but the whole object of this very first exercise is to get you to recognize it wherever it appears… 

I am going to first break the suspense by telling you that this very  ubiquitous character has three meanings (which is why you come across it in so many food related situations). These meanings are:

  • Vegetable;
  • Dish (as in a prepared meal item rather than an actual platter); and,
  • Cuisine.

Don’t  worry about the meaning too much as we will be covering this later posts. For now, just examine the character closely so as to help fix it in your memory.

Chinese 101 01-02

The actual structure of Chinese characters is a complex topic that we will need to deal with at some point but I don’t want to overwhelm you with a lot of detail too early on. For now, just note that this particular character can be viewed as being composed of three separate groups arranged vertically. Identifying and recognizing these groups, or components, will help you recognize this, and other characters…

So, what’s with the ‘grass’, ’claw’ and ‘tree’ labels?

Giving names to the individual components helps fix them in your memory. Possibly, these three individual shapes may suggest something else entirely to you…  a worn out comb, a rake, and a squashed bird, for example. However, while making up your own mnemonic devices is fine, it is much better to use the component names formally in use already.  We’ll look at this in a little more detail on another post so just trust me on this for the moment…

Chinese 101 01-03

If you try, you can probably come up with a memory device to help connect the components with the meaning of the character… maybe: The GRASS fed chicken CLAWS beneath the TREE and helps the VEGETABLES to grow?

Okay, so that’s not the greatest mnemonic, but you get the general idea. Just keep repeating ‘Grass, claw, tree … grass, claw, tree’ to yourself as you search for the character in these first simple examples:

Chinese 101 01-04

The English identifies the contents. Can you see our character? What particular meaning do you suppose it has in this context… vegetable, dish or cuisine?

Chinese 101 01-05

This restaurant appears to serve Manchurian, or North-east Chinese CUISINE…

Chinese 101 01-06

Our character is plainly printed but a little more difficult spot here. Can you see it?

Chinese 101 01-07

This one is a bit tricky at first… the top component of our character is split into two pieces. This is a pretty common variation though and we still read this as ‘grass, claw and tree’.

One of the things you will have to get used to is the variety of styles (or fonts, if you like). The examples we have just seen are all pretty straightforward so let’s ‘ramp it up a notch’ with some harder ones…

Chinese 101 01-08

Our character appears twice on this restaurant sign. The one to the right is still pretty easy to read but it also displays the ‘split grass’ component.

Chinese 101 01-09

Here, our character is very stylized… where is it?

Chinese 101 01-10

Can you see it here?

Chinese 101 01-11

There are two instances here … you may need reading glasses to find the second example but, as a hint, look for the dish you might select if you were a bit short of money…

Chinese 101 01-12

This is our last example and the most difficult of all. Handwritten signs are the most tricky to read but our character does appear here. Hint: Look in the middle of the top line. Can you find it now?

Anyway … that brings us to the end of our first exercise. As this post appears on a Sunday, I have decided that I will make Sundays my Culinary Chinese Day from now on. Next, we will have a quick look at the pronunciation of our character and, in follow up posts, look more closely at the meaning in different situations…

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Eha #

    Fantastic!! Yes, please, may I be in the class and I p’womise to behave!! [You were not a quiet reader at BAM’s just now??] Would it mean ‘dish’ or ‘dishes’, but what dialect I have no clue since most of yours seem to be ‘Szechuan’ and then NE Chinese Mongolian right on the opposite end of the scale?? Any As tomorrow 😉 !!

    February 23, 2014
    • In the context of a restaurant sign …. ‘dishes; and ‘cuisine’ would essentially be almost synonymous. A sign could, for example say (in English): ‘We serve Cantonese dishes’ or ‘We serve Cantonese cuisine’ and convey the same message.

      Strictly speaking, written Chinese is universal and thus has no ‘dialect’ as such (although there are some characters unique to Cantonese)… Spoken Chinese, however, is a very different story though. I will be touching on that very point in my post next Sunday 🙂

      February 23, 2014
      • Eha #

        John , I do not have my own blog but repost to series of friends. I found this such a fascinating idea, especially to those of us living Down Under because of the strong Asian influence on our cuisine, that I have just reposted the whole of this article. I usually put the blogger’s email at the end so they are aware of what I have said in the intro – could not find yours on the blog . . so just wanted to say quite a few I know have this now also . . . Eha

        February 23, 2014
  2. My comment was again lost….iPad!
    Thank you for this meaningful exercise. 菜 means vegetables . But it may also mean cuisine. E.g. 粵菜 means Cantonese Cuisine .
    Happy learning!

    February 23, 2014
    • Exactly… some of the pictures above show the character used in that sense… Sichuan Cuisine, for example. I will be devoting some further posts to each of the meanings separately.

      February 23, 2014
  3. Cool! That was awesome. Now I will be looking for that symbol all the time on Chinese menus, restaurant awnings, etc. Thanks for this!

    February 23, 2014
  4. Nancy #

    Fun! I didn’t think I’d be interested in this topic at all, but I am. It’s funny how we block out symbols of other languages until our attention is drawn to them in an article like this. I look forward to the next installments.

    February 23, 2014
    • Next week’s post has a technical bit about pronunciation that I needed to get out of the way… but I kept it short so as not to be too ‘textbooky’ … the following one will be more fun 🙂

      February 23, 2014
  5. Marie McKenna #

    That was really interesting to read. Will definitely check into this lesson on Sundays from now on. Thanks to Julie ONeill (@julieon) for alerting me to your blog on twitter. Looking forward to learning more about Chinese characters.

    February 23, 2014
    • Thank you! I am pleased with the interest so far… and if you can, please thank Julie for me. I don’t see the tweet.

      February 23, 2014
      • Marie McKenna #

        Will tell Julie. Will be reading other posts also.

        February 23, 2014
  6. ohsohappy #

    Dearest John, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Your painstaking detail on our behalf is most appreciated. Perhaps I just spent too much time pruning bushes today and am very fatigued, but this exercise brings tears to my grateful eyes. Said eyes see Chinese characters in a profound and ohsobeautiful way now. Thank you so much. Taunya in sunny, very dry California.

    February 23, 2014
    • Thank you Taunya … I hope you keep enjoying 🙂

      February 23, 2014
  7. I love this post! I am totally illiterate so I really appreciate this. Keep them coming!

    February 23, 2014
  8. This is great, thanks! I love the pictures of all the different ways 菜 can look. I’ve linked to this from my own post on the character.

    One request — after scrolling down a bit, it’s not all that easy to see whether a caption refers to the photo above it or the photo below it. Could this be made more obvious?

    February 26, 2014
    • Gee … that never struck me before. I’ll make some changes for future posts.

      February 26, 2014

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