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Culinary Chinese 101: A Second Character…

CC A Second Character 1

Although we will be introducing a new character today (and taking a quick look at a few more), I very much want to keep the focus on remembering and being able to recognize our old friend the ‘cài’ character. The whole purpose during these first few weeks of lessons is to get you to the point where the character will ‘leap out’ at you wherever you see it (even if nothing else makes sense). I promise, if you keep repeating ‘Grass, Claw, Tree’ to yourself and watching for the familiar three components in a vertical arrangement, this *will* happen for you, so keep at it…

Now, let’s move on and see what puts the ‘Bok’ in ‘Bok Choy’ … 

CC A Second Character 2

I chose báicài (Bok Choy) as our first vegetable to look at because most people recognize it and the ‘bái’ character is a pretty simple one to remember.

Take a good look at it… I can’t really give you a meaningful mnemonic to help cement this in your memory just yet (not without you having learned a few more concepts first), but the character is basically just a box with a line through it and a little ‘diddly-bit’ on top. One thing to note is that, unlike the cài character, with its three-component (‘Grass, Claw, Tree’) structure, this one appears simple and indivisible. This will be very meaningful later but, for now, just keep this in the back of your mind.

As you can see, bái has many meanings (many more than listed above, actually), but in this context (ie: modifying cài), it means ‘white’. Accordingly, you can think of báicài (Bok Choy) as meaning ‘white vegetable). Now, I know the vegetable you see pictured above is more of a green than white but ignore this for now. After all, the common European variety of headed-cabbage is also known as a ‘white-cabbage’ despite its actual color.

Now, my horticulturally-minded readers will probably already know that Bok Choy (or Paksoi etc.) can actually refer to more than one member of the cabbage family. However, though you can simply refer to any of them by the basic name, there are also specific names as well…

CC A Second Character 3

Please don’t worry too much about trying to memorize the additional characters you see here. We will be seeing them again in more detail at some point, but, for your present information…

Big Bok Choy – You will likely recognize this as Nappa cabbage. The first character looks a little like a tiny man with his arms spread showing how ‘BIG’ a fish he caught.

Little Bok Choy – Both this variety and the Shanghai type beside it, are commonly called ‘Little Bok Choy’ in Grocery Markets. The ‘小’ character can mean small, tiny, few, or young, but it always reminds me of a little bird, which is how I have been able remember it. The pronunciation is a bit tricky but we will worry about that in a later lesson.

Shanghai Bok Choy – This sort is identified by the fact that the stem is a light green rather than the white stem of ‘Little Bok Choy’. It is often sold as ‘Baby Bok Choy’, even when quite large.

Bok Choy ‘Sprouts’ – Here, you will note that the modifier follows, rather than precedes ‘Bok Choy’ This is not a sub-type, or variety; the 苗 character means sprout, shoot, or tip. It is often used liberally by restaurants and vegetable sellers to indicate that a given type of ‘green’ is fresh and tender. In the above picture, the type labeled ‘Baby Bok Choy’ appears to be ‘Little Bok Choy’

Now let’s do a couple of exercises to help you identify Bok Choy on a menu, and further get you used to the cài character wherever it appears…

CC A Second Character 4

Click to enlarge…

I hope you can read the characters here without too much difficulty. Count the number of times you see our ‘Grass, Claw, Tree’ configuration and then see how many of the dishes listed you could order and be sure that Bok Choy of some sort is included.

CC A Second Character 5

Click to enlarge…

Again, sorry for the image quality… I have been scanning menus and this is the best I have so far. I will try and improve things in future but, for now, strain your eyes and see how many times our two characters occur. Also… take note of the list heading at the top of the menu on the left. We will encounter this group of characters at a later date but take a look now and see if you can guess what they mean.

Well… that’s the end of today’s post. We will be looking at more vegetables in due course but I don’t want to simply present you with long lists of things all at once until you have acquired some skills at organizing such information. That will come later…


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20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great little Chinese lesson. Looking forward to your next one. My boys favorite is xiao bai cai. What is your favorite?

    March 9, 2014
    • The Shanghai kind probably … I especially like them when they are really tiny and are called ‘spoon’ cabbage because each one will sit in a dinner spoon 🙂

      March 9, 2014
  2. Very hardworking student! 努力跁!
    One thing I am nit sure,,,大白菜 is 紹菜?please educate me.

    March 9, 2014
    • Well, first, please understand that I am not anything like fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese and my understanding of written Chinese is still very elementary. I am learning myself ….

      I have not come across 紹菜 before … I gather it would be pronounced shào cài, and I recognize the first character as being composed of the silk, knife and mouth radicals, but my favorite dictionary does not recognize a compound word made from those two characters. I did Google it though and it according to Chinese Wikipedia seems to be an alternate name for Nappa Cabbage. See here …大白菜

      March 9, 2014
      • Keith #

        Google translate translates the first character as “connect” or “introduce”, and the two together as “Napa cabbage”. So it looks like the answer to friendlytm’s question is “yes”

        March 10, 2014
  3. Eha #

    Interesting in more than language for me! Haven’t seen what you call ‘little bok choy’ here at all – all of ours seems to be of the Shanghai bok choy variety, which can be ‘normal’ or ‘little’ in size. Loved the lesson . . . at this rate easy to remember also!!

    March 9, 2014
    • I’m trying not to do too much at once 🙂

      March 10, 2014
    • We have little bok Choy here. 小白菜. We are in SF Bay Area .
      Yes 紹菜is napa cabbage, but I don’t know that it is called大白菜。

      March 11, 2014
      • Actually, Napa is the very first veggie I ever saw identified as Bok Choy in supermarkets (usually spelled Paksoi or Pakchoi, though). The online Chinese dictionary at Yellowbridge translates 大白菜 as ‘Brassica pekinensis’, which includes Napa, while 小白菜 is included in the veggie group Brassica chinensis . I am guessing 大白菜 isjust not that widely used..

        March 11, 2014
  4. I’m enjoying these lessons!

    March 11, 2014
    • I’m very glad … these posts are harder to write than food posts but lots of fun 🙂

      March 12, 2014
  5. ohsohappy #

    I just got to this lesson today. Mom has been visiting from Seattle for the past week. She has asked me to share your future lessons with her. She is 88 and proof we are never too old to learn. The only Chinese I have known in the past is “xie xie” which a reflexologist taught me at my request. So, xie xie, John!! I am grateful for your efforts on our behalf. ☺️

    March 11, 2014
    • Ha ha, it is getting more interesting here. What does xie xie mean? Which dialect is that?

      March 12, 2014
      • Depends on the tone … xièxie in Mandarin, or xièxiè in Taiwanese is a way of saying thanks (the characters are the same). A fractional different tone (xièxiè) means diarrhea. I am guessing ohsohappy is going for the former meaning 🙂

        March 12, 2014
    • And thank you to you as well 🙂

      March 12, 2014
      • ohsohappy #

        LOL. Lord have mercy! The former, indeedI. 😄

        March 12, 2014
  6. Now, I found the answer. John,you found these in Google if you probe a bit farther, you will see a few more options. 紡菜is also called 津菜。 sometimes !,x一more fancy restaurants, you will find on the menu 津白. It means Napa Cabbage but the younger ones! Therefore it is more delicious . Then I browsed at some recipe sites, and surprisingly I found the answer to my question. The Taiwanese called napa cabbage 大白菜!,

    March 12, 2014
    • Regional differences cause all sorts of confusion in English as well 🙂

      March 12, 2014

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  1. Culinary Chinese 101: How do you say ‘菜’? | Sybaritica
  2. Culinary Chinese 101: ‘Introducing… Sichuan Cuisine’ | Sybaritica

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