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Culinary Chinese 101: How do you say ‘菜’?

How do you say cai 1

You will probably recognize the above picture from last week’s Culinary Chinese post when I introduced the character 菜, which can mean vegetable, dish or cuisine.  I mentioned, at the end of that post, that today I would teach you how to pronounce the character and I am using this same picture again as it may help you to guess at it yourself…

If I tell you that the second two words of the English name (Bok Choy) correspond to the first two of the three large Chinese characters, can you take a stab at how ‘菜’ might be pronounced? If you guessed ‘Choy’ then you’d be…. CORRECT!!

Well, Sort of…  Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than that… 

How do you say cai 2

One thing you absolutely need to know is this: … While there is such a thing as ‘Written Chinese’, there really isn’t a ‘Spoken Chinese’! Across China there are a large number of spoken dialects, most of which are mutually unintelligible. A Chinese person in Guangzhou, Chengdu, or Beijing, for instance, may see the same character (菜, for example) and get the same mental image. However, what they hear in their heads, and how they say it out loud, just won’t be the same.

How do you say cai 3

Think of all the typical restaurant items you know by their ‘Chinese’ name and you will likely come up with Chow Mein, Dim Sum, Moo Goo Gai Pan, or Har Gow, to name but a few. The truth is, though, all of these names, like Bok Choy, represent typical English spellings for the Chinese names spoken in the Cantonese dialect. Canton (or more properly Guangdong) is a province in southern China and, since the earliest Chinese immigrants to the west were Cantonese (many of whom opened restaurants), that dialect has had, thus far at least, the biggest linguistic impact in the culinary sphere.

As you may be aware, Mandarin (or, more properly, Putonghua) is now the official spoken dialect in the People’s Republic and is also, as it happens, the most widely spoken and understood.

How, then do you say 菜 in Mandarin?

How do you say cai 4

Hmmm…. I’m pretty sure I can all hear you saying: “Gee, thanks a lot, John… We’re no further ahead than we were before. Is it pronounced KAY, SIGH or KYE… and what’s with that funny accent thingie over the ‘a’ anyway?’

Well… for now, just think of the pronunciation as if it were spelled:

‘TS-EYE’ (or ‘TS-Y’)

Did you have ever wonder why it used to be ‘Peking’ but is now ‘Beijing’? Well, the short answer is that in the 1950’s, China adopted a standardized method of spelling Chinese syllables in roman letters which is called Pinyin. Cài is the pinyin representation of the Mandarin pronunciation of 菜 and the little accent is a tonal mark. Forget what that means for now… I’ll deal with it at a later date as I don’t want to overburden you with too much boring detail all at once. I’ll stop talking pronunciation for the moment, except to say that, for the near future, I will include an easy phonetic spelling along with the Pinyin when I introduce a new character (as well as the Cantonese, if it is commonly used here in the west). For those of you who would like to learn a little more about Mandarin pronunciation independently of these lessons, there is a very good Pinyin Pronunciation Guide here that you may want to look at and bookmark.

Anyway, that ends our technical discussion on pronunciation. I hope it didn’t cause anyone to lose interest in our study with too much detail but you need to know some stuff and I’ve tried to keep it fairly simple. Next week, we’ll return to more interesting things and learn just what puts the ‘BOK’ in Bok Choy (báicài, to those speaking Mandarin)….

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I am a lawyer by profession and my practice is Criminal... I mean, I specialize in Criminal law. My work involves travelling on Court circuits to remote Arctic communities. In between my travels I write a Food blog at

12 thoughts on “Culinary Chinese 101: How do you say ‘菜’?

  1. This really is fascinating stuff, John. Each time I went to my local Asian market this past week, I looked for our character. It is amazing how easy it can be to recognize, or how difficult…all depending on the font.

  2. I’m enjoying these posts John as my Chinese daughter-in-law and qing jia mu have been attempting to teach me Mandarin culinary terms. So this will always be ‘cài’ to me 🙂

  3. Fantastic, John!! Hope you will have the patience to keep on teaching thus ~ I have learned so many facts I did not know from this post alone – and it is such fun I cannot wait till next weekend! Had heard of ‘pinyin’ – did not know what it was . . . now quite a few things are beginning to make sense. Your choice of ‘bok choi’ was quite an interesting start – thank you again! These will be filed!!

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