Culinary Chinese 101… Where’s the Beef?

First of all, apologies to those of you who are too young to recognize the catch-phrase I adopted for the title of today’s post. However, even if you didn’t get the reference, you can still probably guess, from the various clues, that the two Chinese characters in the above picture are translated as ‘Beef’…

The first of these characters means ‘cow’ or ‘ox’, while the second translates as ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’. The Pinyin transliteration ‘niúròu’ doesn’t really suggest the pronunciation very well but our cow helpfully provides this as ‘Nyoe Roe’ (which is close enough for now).

The main focus of today’s lesson will actually be on the first character. We will also be looking at the second in much more detail in an upcoming lesson but, for now, take note of its shape. To me it looks rather like a coat rack with one of the coat-hangers falling off, but others see it as a rib-cage, which does rather suggest the meaning…

The 牛 character is generally supposed to pictorially represent a cow’s head but, while older forms of the character may have done so, it is difficult to see any resemblance today. To me, it always looks like a little bird perched on the top-crossbar of a telephone pole and that is how I came to fix the image in my mind. It is generally fairly easy to recognize but beware of the look-alikes shown above; particularly the second one meaning ‘noon’. Also you may see the third character appear following ‘cow’ as 牛年, which means ‘year of the Ox’.

By the way, you will note that the radical for this character is exactly the same as the character itself. This is true of quite a number of single-component characters but there are also cases where the radical form and the stand-alone form are different. Keep this in mind for next week’s lesson…

You will find the characters 牛肉 together in all sorts of places including restaurant signs, product packages, and just about every menu you will come across (except vegetarian restaurants of course). How many beef dishes can you see on the restaurant menu in the above picture, and how many of these are noodle dishes?

Here is a pretty easy example from a recipe book. By now, you should be able to recognize all the characters and translate the name of the dish being shown.

The 牛肉 is a little bit harder to read on this sign. The English name indicates that the establishment specializes in noodles but the Chinese seems to suggest beef noodles in particular. The characters we have learned for noodle are not shown here; rather the character following 牛肉 indicates a particular type of noodles that we will be looking at in a later lesson.

One of the characters for noodles we have already learned is shown on the package on the left. We don’t need an English translation here to tell us that these are beef noodles. The characters for ‘beef’ are highly stylized on the package on the right but you should be able to find them without too much difficulty.

I am showing you this excerpt from a menu because it contains a number of instances where the ‘cow’ character is not followed by the ‘meat’ character. All the dishes listed here are beef dishes and the characters at the very top indicate this. The 類 character following the 牛 is pronounced lèi (‘lay’) and means category, class or type. You will see it heading up the various sections on quite a lot of Chinese menus, as in ‘Chicken Category’, ‘Rice Category’ or ‘Seafood Category’, for example.

There are four instances here where 牛肉 is used; one of which, you will note, is a stir-fried dish. The remaining two dishes use a character other than 肉 after the ‘cow’ and this usually means that a specific cut, or part, of the cow is being used. Here, dish #29 contains Sirloin as the beef component and the character combination is one you will come across quite often. Even in cases where you cannot identify the characters following 牛, at the very least you will be able to tell that the dish in question has some part of a cow in it.

This menu excerpt specifies that beef tendon is used in dish #59. This is obvious from the English translation but, since tendon is not popular with westerners, such dishes are often only included on Chinese language ‘wall-menus’ only. You will also note that Korean and Japanese translations are given. Japanese ‘Kanji’ script is based on Chinese characters but you can usually tell that you are looking at Japanese rather than Chinese is the use of highly rounded strokes. These are almost non-existent in Chinese script.

By the way, note the ‘look-alike’ for 牛 in dish #58.

The 牛排 character combination you see on this noodle package is very common. The 排 character translates as row, or line and it occurs in the words for ‘rib’ and ‘pork chop’, which we will come across later. When it follows the ‘cow’ character, the whole is translated as ‘Steak’.

In Chinese, ‘steak’ can mean an actual steak, or, as in the English ‘Steak and Kidney Pie’, just means that beef of some sort is being used. In this example, I would say that ‘steak’ flavor is a bit of an ambitious description… Can you identify two more of the characters in the product name?

Finally, the 牛 in this restaurant name is not easy to recognize but you can probably tell what sort of establishment it is. I think that the 牛排 in this case probably means the real thing.

Anyway, there all sorts of other examples and character combinations we could look at but I don’t want to overload you with too much in once go. At this point, you should be able to pick out the cow character whenever you see it and, in time, you will be able to use a Chinese dictionary in order to look up any unfamiliar characters you find following it.

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