Culinary Chinese 101: A Homely Character…

A Homely Character 1

For those of you who have been following these Chinese language posts, the 菜 character (grass-claw-tree) ought to be leaping out at you from the covers of the three cookery books pictured above. You may also be able to guess, from the context, that the titles of the books refer to some type of cuisine.

We have already looked the Chinese characters specifically indicating Sichuan cuisine (川菜 or 四川菜) and Beijing cuisine (京菜 or 北京菜). In those cases, the characters preceding the ‘cài’ refer to a province and a city respectively. Here, however, the 家常 before the 菜 doesn’t refer to a location at all… 

A Homely Character 2

There are three more cookery books pictured above, each displaying 家常菜 in very different fonts. The middle book-cover also has an attempt at an English translation for the Chinese characters, but it is rather unfortunate that the translator did not appreciate that, in English, the word ‘homely’ generally means unattractive or ugly. Clearly, the meaning that the publisher intended to convey was ‘homey’ and, indeed, 家常菜 can loosely be translated as ‘Home-style Cuisine’, ‘Home-cooked Dishes’ or, simply, ‘Home cooking’.

Today, it is the first character (家) that is particularly important for our vocabulary purposes, but in the remainder of the post we will look at those situations in which it appears in tandem with 常…

A Homely Character 3

The  家 character, as you can see, breaks down into two vertically arranged components. Both of these components are of a particular type known as ‘radicals’. This is a very important concept that we will be looking at a couple of weeks hence, but for now, all you need to know is that they are respectively known formally as the ‘roof’ radical and the ‘pig’ radical.

The upper component, or radical, certainly looks a little bit like a roof but I have to admit that it is difficult to see how the lower component can be said to resemble a pig. To me, it looks something like a wing so, just possibly, you will only be able to associate the meaning with the shape ‘when pigs fly’…

In any event, a roof over a pig has come to mean ‘home’ or ‘family’ and one can only imagine that there must be an interesting etymological history behind that. You should also know that the character also has the further, secondary meaning of ‘house’ but this is the case only in limited instances.

A Homely Character 4

I am not going to go into a lot of detail concerning the second character in 家常菜…  In the culinary context, it is usually only encountered following 家 and so you will want to concentrate on recognizing the basic appearance of the compound word which is formed by the two together:



It is not possible to say which of the various meanings of 常 are in play here … When characters form compounds, the collective meaning may be related to, or entirely independent of the separate meanings of the constituent characters. In non-culinary contexts, 家常 can mean ‘every day family life’, or otherwise convey ‘hominess’, but when it appears on cookery book covers, restaurant signs, or menus, it is best translated as ‘Home-style’.

A Homely Character 5

Home-style cuisine (家常菜) is frequently seen advertised on Restaurant Signs. In the first, and possibly the second of the pictures above, it looks very much as if each restaurant is actually called 家常菜. In the third picture, the sign appears to be an auxiliary rather than the main sign for a restaurant. One rather imagines that if it were on a western restaurant it would probably say something like ‘Home Cookin’’.

A Homely Character 6

Here are another couple of examples. In the picture on the left, the character following 家常菜 is basically one of the ways of indicating that the establishment is a restaurant. It’s a bit of a non-standard way of doing it but don’t worry about that for now. On the right, you should be able to find two instances of our three characters together.

A Homely Character 7

In the above two examples, the fonts are rather tricky. Still, if you have been following these posts regularly, you should be finding that the 菜 character is starting to ‘leap out’ at you.

By the way, it is not easy to see, but if you look closely at the picture on the left you may just be able to make out another character we looked at recently.

A Homely Character 8

On restaurant signs, 家常 is commonly followed by 菜, but this is not always so in other situations. On menus and in recipe books, for instance, you may see the two characters included as part of the name of a given dish to indicate its supposedly rustic or ‘homey’ nature.

There are two different dished pictured above… On the left is a ‘Home-style’ lamb preparation and, on the right, squid is being given the ‘home cookin’’ treatment. In both cases, the character immediately following the 家常 further specifies the actual cooking method. Once you see enough instances of this sort of descriptive name you will probably conclude, as I have, that  家常 is to Chinese cookery what ‘Home-style’ is to western cuisine… it basically means whatever the hell the cook wants it to mean.

Oh …. in the picture on the left, the main ingredients are listed below the name.. You should recognize one of them easily!

A Homely Character 9

I am closing out today’s post with another picture of a restaurant sign. If you squint at the smaller characters, you should be able to tell that the place does indeed serve 家常菜. However, you may be a little puzzled by the appearance of 家 in the larger characters forming the restaurant name… Here, it is not followed by 常… what gives?

You should have no problem recognizing the first two characters in the name and, if you think about it a bit, you may be able to guess at how the next two characters are translated. If you are still stumped, check back next week…

2 thoughts on “Culinary Chinese 101: A Homely Character…”

  1. You are a very good teacher – this ‘course’ is building up in a very interesting way tho’ this needs a bit of quiet evening time after work 🙂 !

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