Culinary Chinese 101: Pleased to Meat You…
Last week, we saw that the Chinese word for Beef is formed by combining the characters for ‘Cow’ and ‘Meat’. In that lesson, we focused mainly on the ‘Cow’ character but today we are going to turn our attention to the character for ‘Meat’ and see how it is used in connection with other popular menu items…
The Chinese character that translates as ‘meat’ or flesh’ is quite simple and, as we noted last week, its resemblance to a rib-cage gives it an ‘anatomical’ flavor that helps us to remember the meaning.
One thing you should pay particular attention to is the radical… Last week, we saw that the stand-alone character for cow is the same as its radical (and, indeed, most of the 214 radicals also occur as stand-alone characters and not just as character components). The meat radical, however represents one of a few cases where the radical and the character forms are not exactly the same. You will find the radical you see pictured above as a component in many characters that have something to do with body parts and, on menus in particular, organ meats such as liver (肝) and tripe (肚).
The chart above shows 4 common menu items that are identified using the 肉 character. We have seen Beef (‘Cow’ + ‘Meat’) in some detail already and you can see that, with one exception, the food names of the remainder are also formed by combining the characters for each animal plus ‘meat’.
You may be wondering, at this point, why chicken and duck are not included in the chart… In the first place, these common foods will be dealt with in separate lessons later but, secondly, and more importantly for today’s purposes, both chicken and duck are usually (although not always) indicated, on menus, using just the individual character for the animal and not adding the ‘meat’ part.
At the bottom of the chart we find ‘Pork’ and you will probably be surprised to see that no animal character is specified. In point of fact, there is a character for pig (which we will encounter in a future lesson) and you can sometimes find pork indicated by ‘pig’ + ‘meat’. In Chinese, however, it is generally understood that if you say (or write) ‘meat’ without specifying any particular animal, then you mean to indicate ‘Pork’. In a sense, ‘Pork’ is the ‘default’ meat in Chinese cuisine and menus often omit the ‘pig’ character’.
Finally, this leaves Lamb and Crabmeat. Crabmeat appears on Chinese menus with about the same frequency as it does on English ones (as opposed to just ‘Crab’, ‘Crab Claws, or ‘Crab Legs’, for example). We will come across a few menu examples of ‘crabmeat’ a little further on today but, other than that, we will deal with crab and other shellfish in later lessons. As for ‘Lamb’, let’s take a closer look…
The 羊 character is derived from a pictographic representation of a sheep’s head and, given a little poetic license, it does look a bit like one (which should help you remember it). The radical, you will note, is the same as the character itself and you will see this shape as a component (and radical) of other characters, including one very important food related character we shall encounter in due course.
Since 羊 means either ‘sheep’ or goat’ (in the same way Hindi uses the same word for both), the combination of 羊肉 can mean ‘mutton’, ‘lamb’, or ‘goat meat’.
The restaurant pictured on the left specializes in lamb (or goat) soup, while at the establishment on the right, both beef and lamb are available. The character following the 肉 means ‘shop’, which indicates that it is a butcher’s rather than a restaurant.
The establishment on the left has ‘cold plates’ for sale and they advertise that they have ‘fresh lamb’. The character for fresh appears just before the 羊肉 and, you will note, contains the 羊 radical as a component.
On the right we see the 羊 character appearing twice. Think back to last week’s lesson and see if you can say which cut is being specified in the lower example.
The two packages above contain two different meats each prepared the same way. The manner of preparation and service is indicated by the 串 character, which is pronounced ‘chuàn’. This is one of those obviously pictographic characters … No prize for guessing how it translates.
The package on the left contains lamb and the character preceding the 羊 means ‘fatty’. Note that this character contains the ‘meat radical’ in its component form. What sort of kebabs are in the package on the right?
Here are listings from two different menus. Can you tell:
• Which dishes contain Crabmeat?
• Which dishes contain Pork?
• How many items contain cow?
• Which item contains the character meaning ‘fresh’?
By the way, the pinyin spelling for Crabmeat is ‘xièròu’. To pronounce it, try saying ‘Shyeah Roe’, but forming the ‘Sh’ sound with the middle of the tongue against the roof of your mouth, rather than the tip against the front part.
There are three more menu excerpts here. Identify all the beef dishes and all the pork dishes.
You should easily be able to locate the ‘meat’ character in the pictures above. You may be tempted to guess that the meat in question is pork since none of the common animal characters we dealt with today are specified. In fact, the character preceding the 肉 does indicate a particular animal source. I’ll leave the translation up to you…
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