Culinary Chinese 101: ‘Introducing… Sichuan Cuisine’

CC Sichuan Cuisine 1

Thus far, we have noted that our ‘菜’ character can mean either vegetable, dish or cuisine, and, in our last post, we looked at an example of it’s employment in the former sense using the common vegetable, Bok Choy. Today, we turn to situations in which菜 is used to refer to a type cuisine and, for a first example, we will look at the famously spicy culinary tradition of China’s western province of Sichuan.

So what’s with the introductory pictures of rivers?

Well, the rivers pictured above are all in China and, as you can see, there are four of them. In Chinese, the name ‘Sichuan’ translates as ‘Four Rivers’ and, happily for our present purposes, we can use this fact to introduce a couple of new Chinese characters to our growing lexicon… 

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Here are the two characters… The first, as you can see, means ‘four’. Later on, we will look at Chinese numbers in a bit more detail, but you should probably have not too much difficulty learning to recognize this particular one. To me, the character for ‘four’ always looks as though somebody took a close-up picture of a pig’s snout using a Polaroid Camera. That image doesn’t really suggest the meaning, of course, but it does help to fix it in my mind, at least…

The second character is one of several Chinese characters that mean river. This one is particularly easy to recognize, not merely because it is so simple in form, but because the three lines very much suggest the flowing lines of a river current.

As for the pronunciation, I daresay that anybody who loves Chinese food is well familiar with the name “Sichuan’ and should have no  difficulty saying it out loud. You have probably seen the alternate spellings on menus and in cookery books from time to time but the first English spelling ‘Sichuan’ is now to be preferred as it more closely reflects the Pinyin transliteration.

Example 1

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We saw this picture in our very first post when you were asked to locate and recognize our ‘菜’ character. As you can see, the sign begins with  四川, or ‘Sichuan’, and then ends with  川菜. From the knowledge you now have, you can probably translate this as ‘River Cuisine’. So… why not ‘Four River Cuisine’?

Well, the answer to that question is that Chinese uses all sorts of formal abbreviations and this is particularly true when it comes to place names. Accordingly, Chinese restaurants that serve Sichuan cuisine could advertise the fact with either of the following:

四川菜 or ‘川菜

In practice, as it happens, you will encounter the abbreviated form (pronounced Chuān cài) far more often.

Example 2

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This restaurant uses the common abbreviated form to announce the type of food available. You will also notice, that not only does it  spell out the precise out the English version of the Chinese characters but also translates 菜 as ‘dish’ (in the sense of ‘dishes’) rather than ‘cuisine’. If you think about it, a restaurant could convey the exact same meaning saying ‘We serve Chinese cuisine’ as it could with ‘We serve Chinese dishes’ so, in this context, the two seemingly different translations are actually pretty nearly synonymous.

Example 3

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These two restaurants use very stylized ‘grass-claw-tree’ characters for ‘cuisine’. As you can see, one spells the food specialty out in full, while the other uses the single character abbreviation for Sichuan.

In all of our examples thus far, the signs also identify the cuisine in English. That is not always the case, however…

Example 4

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Just imagine passing by this restaurant and being able to amaze your friends by telling them what sort of cuisine is being served!

Example 5

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Can you find ‘Chuān cài’ on these two signs?  Try pronouncing the words as: ‘Shwan Tsye’ …

Example 6

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The font is a little tricky here, but you should be able to spot ‘Chuān cài’ without too much difficulty. If you look carefully, you will also find 四川 occurring in one place, and then our ‘River’ character in two separate locations, followed, each time, by a character we have not encountered before. We’ll be looking at that character in future posts…

Example 7

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You should be able to catch this occurrence even viewed from an angle…

Example 8

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Finally, this restaurant doesn’t actually specify the cuisine on offer but you should be able to guess from the name that many of the dishes served will be spicy hot…

Anyway, you should now be getting somewhat adept at identifying the  ‘THREE FLOWING LINES” plus ‘GRASS-CLAW=TREE’. Eventually, of course, your ability to spot Sichuan cuisine will cease to amaze your friends after a while but, on the bright side, if you do it enough you will be able to relish the sensation of being insufferably annoying!

More to come next Sunday…

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12 thoughts on “Culinary Chinese 101: ‘Introducing… Sichuan Cuisine’”

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this lesson! Fascinating to begin being able to pick out just a few of the characters and know what they mean/probably mean. Like it that you gave so many examples as the writing itself varies from one restaurant to the other. I DO wish I felt comfortable with the now correct ‘Sichuan’ – I am afraid I still keyboard the ‘Szechuan’ I have used for so many years 🙂 !

  2. Hi John I’m catching up on your lessons in Beijing with my Chinese daughter in law helping my translation. She is very impressed with your teaching methods. Is that the sign China Sichuan restaurant in Dublin, Ireland in Example 3?

    1. Thank you very much 🙂 Actually, I’m not sure where that photo was taken. I collect dozens of pictures for each post and then usually only use a few of them…

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