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Culinary Chinese 101: The Wine House

The Wine House 1

Today’s lesson begins with the same picture with which we concluded last week’s post. In our lesson last week, we looked at the compound word 家常, meaning ‘Home-style’, and specifically focused on the first character, 家, which can mean home, family, or in some circumstances, ‘house’. In today’s post, we will be looking at a new compound in which 家 is used in the latter sense.

The sign above does specify that the restaurant serves 家常菜 but in the large character name it uses the 家 character without the 常 after it. Instead, we see that it is preceded by a character we have not encountered before and, in concluding the last post, I asked you to guess at what the two-character combination, 酒家, might mean.

If you guessed that 酒家 probably means restaurant, and that the full name of the establishment pictured above is ‘Sichuan Restaurant’, then kudos to you indeed. The character combination 酒家 does, in fact, get translated as ‘Restaurant’ but this is actually a very loose translation and, in order to see what I mean by that, we need to look at the 酒 in more detail…


The Wine House 2

The 酒 character can be found in many places (such as on wine bottles or in recipes, for example). It is extremely common in various culinary contexts and is well worth knowing…  As you can see, the character is formed by two components: The second (on the right) is often called the ‘wine radical’, and you can remember it because it looks very much like a wine jar with a stopper and some liquid at the bottom. This component occurs as part of many other characters of culinary interest.

The first component on the left is an extremely important one and you will see it occurring on the left side of hundreds of characters, both of a culinary nature, and otherwise. This is the so-called ‘water radical’ and, because of its resemblance to a spray of three water droplets, it is often referred to as ‘three drops water’. Be careful though… as we shall see a little further on, different fonts render this component in different ways.

The Wine House 3

While 酒家 are directly translated as ‘Winehouse’ (think ‘alehouse’), in modern use it is generally read as ‘restaurant’. There are many ways of saying restaurant in Chinese (and we shall look at a few more of these in due course), but 酒家 is quite common and you should keep an eye out for it. Naturally, you won’t usually need to read the characters to tell that a given establishment is a restaurant but being able to spot the characters together will help you recognize them when they appear separately in different contexts.

By the way, look at the ‘three dots water’ component in the above picture and then in the one before it. Can you see the differences? I mentioned that this component appears differently in different fonts and the two forms we see here are alternatives to each other. Both are very common.


The Wine House 4

Our two characters are fairly easy to spot here. The fonts are pretty simple and you will notice that the ‘water’ components of both 酒 characters are of the same form. I am presuming that whoever took the photo on the right was tickled by the restaurant name but can you see the ‘three dots water’ component in another character there?

The Wine House 5

Here, quite different fonts are used and you will notice that, this time, the alternate form of the ‘water component’ is used.

Incidentally, we have already encountered the character that appears twice before the ‘酒家’ in the left-hand picture. How would you translate the name of this establishment?

The Wine House 6

The fonts are starting to get a little trickier here and it is a little harder to recognize the ‘three dots water’.  Both restaurant signs also have another character with the water component on the left. Can you find them? The occurrence of this in the right hand image was encountered in a different picture earlier in this post.



The Wine House 7

Our final example shows two instances of fonts that are so stylized as to make recognizing the characters quite difficult. The ability to recognize them, however, becomes better with practice so keep an eye out for restaurant signs using this form of ‘restaurant’ in Chinese. Just as importantly, try and spot any occurrences of the ‘酒’ character appearing in different contexts…


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