kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

Today's post is sort of a combined concept/character one — I'm going to talk about chopsticks, and the Mandarin Chinese word for them: 筷子 (kuài zi).

According to China Radio International, chopsticks probably evolved from the use of twigs to pick up hot food. Relatedly, Fuchsia Dunlop's blog post on chopsticks recounts a memory of a camping trip in Sichuan where her guide cut and peeled some twigs from the trees to make chopsticks for their dinner.

Gong Dan's Food & Drink in China describes how in the Zhou dynasty (11th-3rd century BC) chopsticks were used for eating meat and vegetables, while rice was still picked up with the hands. (Note, however, that [personal profile] pulchritude points out in comments that this may not be quite accurate.) These days, of course, rice is also eaten with chopsticks (assuming you're eating from a bowl — if you're given rice on a plate, often the most sensible way to eat it is with a fork and spoon).

Gong Dan also describes the etymology of the word. During the Zhou dynasty, chopsticks were known as 箸 (zhù). However, this is precisely homonymous with 住 (zhù), which means "to stop, to cease", and 住 was a taboo word aboard ships, since stopping a ship en route was considered bad luck. This problem was solved by referring to chopsticks as 快子 (kuài zi), a combination of 快 (kuài), meaning "quick", with the particle 子 (zi) as a suffix to make it into a "proper" word. Later, the bamboo radical (⺮) was placed above 快 to make 筷, since chopsticks are commonly made from bamboo, giving the modern word 筷子.

As someone who (a) didn't grow up using chopsticks and (b) was mildly teased at school for holding my knife and fork the "wrong" way, I'm reluctant to lay down any pronouncements about the right way to use chopsticks, but my preferred way of holding them is to lodge the bottom one firmly in the web between my thumb and index finger, resting it on my curled-in ring finger, and then to pivot the top one independently, pushing up with my third finger and down with my second finger as required, steadying it with my thumb the whole time.

I did find a pretty good YouTube video demonstrating this, but I've unfortunately managed to lose the link. There are lots of "how to use chopsticks" videos on YouTube, but be warned that some of them show rather suboptimal methods. Once you're holding your chopsticks in a way that you find comfortable, check out [personal profile] thorfinn's Chinese chopstick tips for what to do next.

Note also that chopsticks differ between cultures. Japanese chopsticks have pointed ends, while Korean chopsticks are made of metal and are flat rather than rounded in cross-section. Chinese chopsticks have blunt tips, and may be made from bamboo, wood, plastic, or less-common materials such as porcelain. I personally like the bamboo/wood ones because I find them more "grippy" than plastic ones.

The use of chopsticks to eat with is intimately connected with the way food is cut prior to cooking. Since there are generally no knives on the dining table, the cook must be careful to cut pieces of food in such a way that they can be picked up with chopsticks. This doesn't necessarily mean that everything must be bitesize — see for example this eGullet thread on ingredient sizing in Chinese cooking – but it's certainly something that must be borne in mind.

筷: kuài radical 118 (竹/⺮) Cantodict MandarinTools YellowBridge Zhongwen

Related posts:
If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

Last July, I discussed the issue of fonts and handwriting in connection with reading Chinese menus. To summarise, I had two main points:

  • The more practice you get at reading Chinese characters in different fonts, the better you will be at it.
  • Certain characters, such as 包 (bāo/package/bun) and 拌 (bàn/mixed), seem to vary between fonts in ways that to a naïve eye might make them appear to be different characters.

The first of these is fairly straighforward, but the second gave rise to some interesting discussion in the comments. Firstly, [personal profile] pulchritude pointed out that some of the examples I gave may only show differences when a Chinese font is compared to a non-Chinese (e.g. Japanese) font, though this doesn't get us off the hook either, since I've certainly seen such characteristics in at least one font used on Chinese menus in London.

Also, [personal profile] shuripentu noted that while 包 doesn't seem to mind whether its central rectangular area is closed or open, there's at least one set of three characters, with different meanings, that differ only in terms of whether the rectangular area is closed, half-closed, or open: , , and .

Clearly this is a complicated issue! So I was quite pleased to recently run across the Wikipedia article on variant Chinese characters. It appears that while some of these variations are in fact down to aesthetic choices made by the designer of the font, others are considered to be true differences in the basic form of the character.

This might seem an arbitrary distinction, but when it comes to using Chinese characters in a computing context, the difference is explicit. Sets of variants which are considered sufficiently different will either be mapped to different Unicode code points[see footnote], or all mapped to the same code point but distinguished from each other by so-called language tags.

A brief digression here to explain what I mean by a code point. A code point is essentially a numeric label for a character. To simplify vastly, when you type and save a document on your computer, it doesn't store the individual pixels that make up the representation of the letters on your screen, but rather these numeric labels. When you come to view the document again, it reconstructs how it should look, using the characters' code points along with your chosen font(s) and other formatting information. It's easy to redisplay what you've written in a different font, because the underlying characters haven't changed.

I'm not aware of any common menu characters that are mapped to different code points, but there are some which are mapped to the same code point but have different representations under different language tags. Below are some examples of the same character rendered "in mainland Chinese" (zh-cn), "in Hong Kong Chinese" (zh-hk), and "in Japanese" (ja). These may or may not look different, depending on your browser setup, so I've added a screenshot of how they look to me (transcript in the alt tag).

zh-cnzh-hkjapinyin (meaning)
hǎi (sea/ocean)
gǔ (bone)
huā (flower)
sī (shred)
The Chinese characters 海, 骨, 花, and 絲 arranged in a tabular format.  Each character is on its own row, and the columns show its representation with the zh-cn, zh-hk, and ja language tags respectively.  ja-海 is different from the other two 海, zh-cn-骨 is different from the other two 骨, zh-cn-花 is different from the other two 花, and all three 絲 differ from each other.

What does this mean for the student of the Chinese menu? Perhaps not a great deal in practical terms. In general, the degree of this type of variation is much smaller than the degree of variation between traditional and simplified characters. Also, unlike the traditional/simplified case, I'm not aware of any patterns that you can use to predict how a character might vary. Finally, regardless of whether or not a character's variations are captured by different code point allocations, the most important thing is to become familiar with them to the point where you can confidently recognise them as the same character.

I still think it's interesting, though! And hopefully you do too.

Footnote: [0] Incidentally, this type of variation is by no means confined to Chinese script. In the Latin alphabet, for example, the lowercase letter "a" has two main basic forms of representation. The one most commonly used in handwriting (at least in the UK) takes the form of a circle with a vertical stroke down the right-hand side. The other has a hooked extension to this vertical stroke, curving back to the left over the circular part. (See diagram on Wikipedia.) In most contexts, the difference between the two is unimportant, a mere matter of the font designer's preference. However, in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), they represent different vowel sounds, and so there are two relevant Unicode code points: "a" (U+0061/LATIN SMALL LETTER A) and "ɑ" (U+0251/LATIN SMALL LETTER ALPHA). Depending on the font you're using in your browser, "a" and "ɑ" may look quite similar to each other, or very different. [personal profile] pne has a couple more examples in comments.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

One issue that I've only really mentioned in passing, and not yet covered in its own post, is the vexed question of traditional vs. simplified Chinese characters.

Character simplification was a project undertaken from the mid-20th century by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC), with the aim of promoting literacy. While the simplified characters resulting from this project are now the official forms used in the PRC and in Singapore, the traditional forms are still used elsewhere, for example in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Overseas Chinese communities, such as those in the UK, may use either or both.

In all my posts here, I've stuck to using traditional characters. This is partly because I prefer the way they look; partly because I don't want people to be scared off by seeing an overwhelming number of characters in the posts; and partly because even without including two forms of a character, I sometimes already find it hard to include the character, its pinyin, and its meaning(s) in a sentence without it looking awkward.

However, at least going by my experience in London, if you want to learn to read a Chinese menu then you're eventually going to have to learn both systems. While most of the menus I've seen in London's Chinatown use traditional characters, restaurants elsewhere in the city often use simplified characters. Some even use a mixture!

Simplified characters can look very different from their traditional forms. Some examples:

lóngdragon (used on menus as e.g. 龍蝦/龙虾/lóng xiā/lobster)
tóuhead (used on menus as e.g. 魚頭/鱼头/yú tóu/fish head)
lánorchid (used on menus as e.g 芥蘭/芥兰/jiè lán/Chinese broccoli)

There are a number of patterns that can help you identify a simplified character that you're already familiar with in its traditional form. Wikipedia has an overview of methods used in the simplification project, which may be of some help. In many cases, characters are simplified component by component, so once you've learned the simplification for a given component, you can apply that knowledge elsewhere. For example, 魚 (yú/fish) is simplified to 鱼, and this is carried through to the characters that use 魚 as a radical: 鮮 (xiān/fresh) becomes 鲜, 魷 (yóu/squid) becomes 鱿, 鱔 (shàn/eel) becomes 鳝, and so on.

The distinction between character systems also comes into play when searching through information stored electronically. At the time of writing, Google and YouTube searches appear to be at least mostly traditional-simplified insensitive, whereas Flickr, Blogspot, and Wordpress searches will return different results depending on whether you search using traditional or simplified characters. (Dreamwidth search still doesn't work at all with Chinese characters, sadly.)

So it's probably always worth trying both systems if you're having trouble finding something. Finally, I'll mention again the commandline utility dets that I wrote to help me grep through the notes and menus I have stored on my laptop; full details at that link.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

Last Monday I looked at how to put a meal together in a Chinese restaurant. Today I'm going to talk about serving Chinese food at home.

A note before I start: as I've mentioned before, I'm neither Chinese nor of Chinese descent. Also, I've never eaten a Chinese meal in a Chinese home. So this is all from the perspective of someone who's learned about the cuisine via books, newspaper articles, conversations with friends, blogs, YouTube videos, restaurant food, etc. This disclaimer does of course apply to all my posts on Chinese food, but I wanted to make it explicit here since I'm talking about the culture of home cooking rather than about restaurant meals or individual dishes.

Having said that, I've been cooking various styles of food for over twenty years, and I do cook Chinese food at home fairly often, so hopefully this post will be of interest to other people who want to cook more Chinese food themselves.

One aspect that's often mentioned as being intimidating is the idea of cooking more than one "main dish" per meal. You don't have to do this — noodle soups such as [identity profile] sung's fishball noodle soup or other noodle dishes such as 炸醬麵/zhà jiàng miàn can make a satisfying and complete meal — but in general, even a very simple Chinese meal will include at least one dish per person (plus rice/noodles).

"Dish" here refers to a flavourful vegetable/meat/fish/seafood/beancurd/etc concoction. The rice or noodles provide the bulk, while the other dishes provide the interest. To get a good balance to the meal, there should be more than one of these "flavour" dishes, using varied ingredients, textures, and seasonings.

At first, this sounds a lot more complicated than simply making, for example, pasta with sauce, or stew with dumplings, or curry and rice, or sausages and mash, but in my opinion this is more a matter of practice and familiarity than anything else. There's some discussion of this issue on a thread on eGullet (if that link doesn't put you in the right place, scroll to post #77 for the start of the conversation). As the participants there point out, one key strategy is to have a repertoire of dishes that you know you can cook quickly without too much thought. Another trick is to serve some cold dishes, which can be prepared in advance and can also form part of multiple meals over the week.

Another eGullet thread, focusing on home-style dishes from the south of China, notes that steamed dishes are a nice addition to a home-cooked meal, and if you have a separate steamer this saves you from having to worry about making multiple dishes in the same wok. Soup also comes in handy.

Speaking of separate appliances, I'd be lost without my rice cooker. It does take up a certain amount of space in the kitchen, but I use it often enough that it's worth it. Particularly when I'm tired from work or in a rush to get dinner on the table, it really does take a lot of pressure off to just be able to throw rice and water into it, push a button, and not have to think about it or check on it until I'm ready to dish up.

Finally, there's not much there yet since I only started it a couple of months ago, but the "Chinese" tag on my home cooking Tumblr might be of interest.

What are your favourite Chinese dishes to cook at home? Any tips to add to those above?

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

One aspect of the Chinese menu that I should probably have explicitly covered somewhat earlier than this is the method of putting a meal together. Chinese dining differs from Western dining in that dishes are not served to individuals in strictly delimited courses, but to the entire table to share[see footnote 0]. This is the case whether the meal is a simple homecooked lunch or a grand formal banquet.

I'm going to discuss larger-scale restaurant-style meals today, since many of the principles hold for all types and scales of Chinese dining, and next week I'll offer some suggestions for eating Chinese food in smaller groups and at home.

One consequence of the "sharing" model is that the usual Western method of restaurant ordering, where each person decides individually what they want to eat with little or no reference to what everyone else wants to eat, doesn't always work too well. A meal should be balanced in terms of ingredients, flavours, and textures; and with the Chinese method of dining, if everyone's doing their own thing it's easy to end up with an imbalance. One way to overcome this is for the host (the person paying, or the person with the most experience with the cuisine, or the person who's been to this restaurant before, or the person who organised the outing, etc, etc) to decide what should be ordered, either unilaterally or in consultation with anyone else in the party who has an opinion.

Fuchsia Dunlop has an interesting blog post about the context in which a formal Chinese banquet is eaten. According to Gong Dan's Food & Drink in China, a standard banquet will consist of four cold plates, eight main dishes, two major showpieces (such as a whole fish, suckling pig, or chicken), as well as soup, rice, pastries and fruit. I've not yet been lucky enough to participate in a meal this elaborate, though I have enjoyed a few Chinese meals in large groups, perhaps most notably a Hunan feast at Golden Day in London, where ten of us shared fourteen dishes including a whole steamed fish laden with chillies and garlic (photo of the fish).

It's worth noting that as [identity profile] sung points out in comments, the food at a formal wedding or New Year banquet is served in the style of a tasting menu, with one dish arriving at a time — I've previously linked to Red Cook's 2008 New Year banquet, which illustrates this nicely. This differs from less-formal restaurant meals, in which dishes may arrive in any order and all sit on the table together. With this difference noted, I'm going to take Gong Dan's list above as a framework for describing the type of dishes that I might order to make up a less-structured restaurant meal.

Working through the list in order, I've discussed cold dishes (涼菜/liáng cài) before. As I mention in that post, these are often labelled in English as "starters", but in reality they can be eaten at any time during a meal[see footnote 1]. At a restaurant, they will often appear on the table first (if only because many of them can be prepared in advance and just need to be dished out), but you're not expected to finish eating them before your hot dishes (Gong Dan's "main dishes") arrive.

Regarding the hot dishes, it's worth noting that these should not all be meat-based. Well-prepared vegetable dishes are just as "main" a dish as any meat dish, and in my opinion any Chinese meal is incomplete without them. In fact, the last time I was out for a Chinese dinner with friends, at least two of us felt that the Chinese leaf in spicy vinegar sauce (photo) was our favourite dish of the evening. If I'm out with a group, I like to order a dish of fairly plainly-cooked greens as well as the more strongly-flavoured vegetable dishes such as fish-fragrant aubergine or dry-fried green beans with minced pork.

Aside from the number of dishes served, the major difference between a simple meal and a more fancy one is perhaps the centrepiece/showpiece dishes. These can be thought of as analagous to, for example, the meat component of a Western "Sunday dinner", and they may in fact consist of roasted meat; a ham or a chicken, perhaps. (Personally, I prefer the "whole fish" option, but then I've never been a great fan of Sunday dinner!)

I've previously discussed the issue of soup (湯/tāng), and come to the conclusion that there's great variation in the way soups are included in Chinese meals. They may be served first, last, or throughout the meal.

Finally, an ample quantity of rice is a must. I usually serve/order plain rice with a Chinese meal, rather than fried rice. The reason for this is that many Chinese dishes are designed to be eaten in relatively small quantities with plenty of plain rice, and hence have strong flavours that can get overwhelming without the rice to balance things up.

Footnote: [0] Individually-plated courses are actually a relatively new development in British dining. Known as "service à la Russe", according to Wikipedia it dates back no earlier than the 19th century.

Footnote: [1] There's a discussion relating to the use of the term "starters" on English-language Chinese menus in the comments section of a recent post on [identity profile] sung's blog.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

Today's post is about how I got pinyin input working on my Android phone (specifically, an HTC Desire Z running Android 2.2.1). This post assumes (i) you're able to drive your phone using the visual interface, (ii) your phone wasn't preconfigured for the Chinese market (if it was, you're unlikely to need this info), and (iii) you have no other input methods installed (if you do, there may be extra options I haven't mentioned on some menus).

I learned how to do this from a video on YouTube. Note: the video has no subtitles, and I've extracted the information below rather than doing a verbatim transcript.

Here are the steps I followed:

  • Go to the marketplace and search for "google pinyin ime" (on my phone this is home->menu->apps->Market->search).
  • Install the one called "Google Pinyin IME (Google Inc.)" (just tap on it and agree to everything — it doesn't cost money aside from any data charges for downloading).
  • Once it's finished installing, go to your settings (on my phone I get there via home->menu->Settings), and then go into the "Language & keyboard" section.
  • Here you should see a checkbox for "Google Pinyin" — switch this on.
  • You should also see a subsection "Google Pinyin settings". Tap on this, and change any settings you like; I switched off both Chinese prediction and English prediction, and switched on Traditional Chinese. You can always come back and play with these later if you're not sure what you want.

The video also explains how to use the input method once you've got it installed. Essentially, when you see a textbox that you'd like to type some Chinese into, tap and hold in the textbox, and when you lift your finger again it should pop up a little menu for "Input method" (I sometimes have to do this a couple of times before it actually works). Tap on this and you'll get a choice between "Touch Input" and "Google Pinyin". The former is the normal input, the latter is pinyin! Tap on the one you want.

Note that switching on pinyin input will change the phone's input method globally, so whenever you go to type text, it will expect pinyin. My phone has two ways of indicating this status. If I have the built-in physical keyboard pulled out, the status bar has a little 中 if I'm in pinyin and a little "En" otherwise. If I have the physical keyboard retracted, the colour of the on-screen keyboard changes; black for pinyin, white for English. To get back to English input, do the same trick of tapping and holding in a textbox, and choose "Touch Input" this time.

When actually typing in pinyin, a bar will appear across the bottom of the screen offering characters that match your pinyin; just above this on the left-hand side will be a small box containing the letters that you've typed. You can type words (e.g. "yuxiang" — don't try adding a space between the syllables, it will do that for you), and if it recognises the word it will offer that as an option. If it doesn't recognise the word, you need to choose the characters individually, but after you've done this once it'll add the word to its dictionary. To choose a character/word from the list of options, either tap on it on the screen, or press the spacebar.

(I should also note that the IME sometimes crashes on me when I'm teaching it a word it doesn't know; I just tap on "Force close" and carry on, and it usually works the second time.)

One final tip; if you're in pinyin input, and you're using the onscreen keyboard, there's a quick way to switch temporarily back to typing English via a key near the bottom left-hand corner of the keyboard. On my phone this key has two "symbols" on it; 拼 on the left and "Abc" on the right. Tapping this key switches between pinyin and English input, though it doesn't switch back to the full "Touch Input" method; the keyboard stays black, and there are missing features such as predictive text. When I'm in full pinyin, the 拼 is large and underlined, and when I'm temporarily in English, the "Abc" is large and underlined.

For another view on this, and information on other phones, take a look at Pinyin Joe's page on Chinese language support on various smartphones.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

Today is the fifth day of the New Year by the Chinese calendar. Unlike British new year celebrations, which are generally restricted to the evening/night of the last day of the previous year (and generally followed by hangovers), Chinese new year celebrations can continue until the fifteenth day of the new year.

Today I'd like to link to some New Year related blog posts I've enjoyed reading.

Sunflower has a great post from 2009 listing traditions associated with the different days of the New Year celebrations, and symbolically lucky foods that are eaten throughout.

Red Cook describes the planning and execution of a ten-course New Year banquet that he held in 2008.

Charmaine Mok has a lovely post with some great pictures detailing a New Year spent with her family after three years away. You may recognise one of the photos from my post last week on 羅漢齋 (luó hàn zhāi/Buddha's delight) — she uses the Cantonese transliteration, loh hon jai.

Helen Yuet Ling Pang describes and photographs some traditional New Year foods and their symbolism.

Milk and Cookies has some photos from the 2009 Chinese New Year celebrations in London.

Bread et Butter has not only a very comprehensive post on the foods of Chinese New Year, but also an explanation of Hokkien New Year, which is celebrated on the ninth day of the year.

I'm also going to sneak in a non-Chinese link here — the Vietnamese year starts on the same day as the Chinese year, and the New Year is celebrated in a festival known as Tết Nguyên Đán. Playing With My Food reports on several delicious-looking vegan dishes that his family enjoys on the first day of the new year.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

Gōng xǐ fā cái!

Gung hei faat coi!

Cung hỉ phát tài!

Happy New Year to everyone who celebrates it. And Happy Thursday to everyone who doesn't :)

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

It is, perhaps, an appropriate time for this blog to come back to life, because this Thursday will be the first day of the New Year in the Chinese calendar.

The Chinese calendar is a type of calendar known as a lunisolar calendar, since it incorporates both the phase of the moon and the season of the solar year. To understand the difference between a lunisolar calendar and a purely lunar calendar, note that while a solar year (the time from one spring equinox to the next) is around 365.24 days on average, a lunar month (the time from one new moon to the next) is around 29.53 days on average, and so the solar year does not have a whole number of lunar months in it; a lunar year consisting of 12 lunar months is about 11 days shorter than a solar year. Hence, a purely lunar calendar (such as the Islamic calendar) will exhibit some "drift" in relation to the seasons, and festivals dated by such a calendar will be celebrated at a slightly different season every year.

A lunisolar calendar avoids this drift by adding an extra month — an intercalary month — every so often. Since the deficit per solar year is around 11 days, which is around a third of a lunar month, this extra month needs to be added roughly every three years. There is an obvious parallel here with the Gregorian calendar's custom of adding an extra day to the end of February every four years or so, to deal with the discrepancy between the solar year and the 365-day year. The next intercalary month in the Chinese calendar will begin on 21 March 2012, lying between the fourth and fifth lunar months.

The method of calculating the Chinese calendar is actually quite complicated, and has changed a number of times over the centuries. Helmer Aslaksen, a mathematician working at the National University of Singapore, has a fairly comprehensive page on the subject. For those who'd prefer to avoid the maths, he links to an online tool for generating Chinese calendars for particular Gregorian months/years; the code behind this is also available as a command-line program, though I haven't tried it out, as I already have the Perl Calendar module installed, which comes with its own command-line tool, cal.pl:

kake@the:~$ cal.pl -c 2 2011

                2011年2月  辛卯年正月大3日始                
Sun 日   Mon 一   Tue 二   Wed 三   Thu 四   Fri 五   Sat 六
                  1廿九     2三十    3正月    4立春     5初三   
 6初四    7初五    8初六     9初七   10初八   11初九    12初十   
13十一   14十二   15十三    16十四   17十五   18十六    19雨水   
20十八   21十九   22二十    23廿一   24廿二   25廿三    26廿四   
27廿五   28廿六

Note, above, the entry for Thursday 3 February; 正月 (zhēng yuè), which denotes the first month of the year. Most of the other entries are numbers, for example the entry for Wednesday 2 is 三十 (sān shí), which means "thirty", this being the 30th day of the final month of the preceding year.

There are also various online calculators for a quick online conversion of a single date, for example Henry Fong's hundred-year calculator.

Characters mentioned in this post:
Other related posts:
If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

Today I want to talk about potatoes. The Mandarin Chinese word for potato is 土豆 (tǔ dòu), which literally means "bean of the earth"; I've posted about 豆/dòu/bean before, so the only new part here is 土/tǔ, which has a number of meanings including soil/earth/land. It's very rare to see 土 on a menu without 豆.

Potatoes play a rather different role in Chinese cuisines than in Western ones; rather than being a staple carb, they're treated like any other kind of vegetable. One consequence of this is that the potatoes themselves are often rather undercooked to Western tastes, particularly when served as 土豆絲 (tǔ dòu sī), or shredded potatoes, a crisp stirfry of finely-julienned potatoes cooked only very briefly to preserve the natural crunch of the vegetable.

"Undercooking" is not the only aspect that may confuse those more familiar with potatoes as a bulky side dish. Rather than being quite bland and served with a more flavourful protein or other "main" dish, a Chinese potato dish will often be deeply flavoured and even relatively spicy, and will generally be served with rice. Fuchsia Dunlop has an anecdote and some history relating to this — the comments are worth reading too, as is the Washington Post article she links to.

Another example of a dish that includes potatoes is 大盤雞 (dà pàn jī/big-plate chicken), a dish from Xinjiang in the northwest, which I posted about last week. Potatoes also appear in 地三鮮 (dì sān xiān), or "three [] fresh [] things from the earth [地]", a Dongbei (north-east Chinese) dish of aubergines, potatoes, and green peppers, all fried separately and then braised together in a savoury sauce.

Most of the Chinese potato dishes I'm familiar with, like those above, come from the cuisines of north/northeast/northwest and central China, rather than the provinces nearer the south/east/southeast coast. The ever-informative [identity profile] sung tells me in comments that this is because sweet potatoes and taro are more common than actual potatoes in the areas around the coast — and although potatoes are used in Cantonese home cooking, particularly in casserole/hotpot dishes, you're unlikely to see these dishes on a menu.

The Cantonese word for potato is 薯仔 (syu zai). This word isn't used in Mandarin, but the individual characters are; for example, the Mandarin for sweet potato is 番薯 or 蕃薯 (both pinyinised as fān shǔ).

For more thoughts on potatoes, see the eGullet thread on potatoes in Chinese cooking.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
Description follows.

[Image: A map of China with Xinjiang shown in red. This is a public-domain image from Wikimedia Commons, originally created by Joowwww.]

While most if not all of the Chinese dishes I've posted about so far come from central/southern/eastern China, there is also some very good food to be had in other areas. Later this week, I'll be discussing a dish from Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the northwest of China, so I thought today I'd give some brief background on the region.

China is a huge country, with many different types of terrain and climate. Although it has a coastline of 14,500 km (9,000 miles) (source: CIA World Factbook), even a relatively central province such as Sichuan is 725 km (450 miles) from the sea at its very closest point, and 1,600 km (1,000 miles) at its furthest (source: Google Maps geocoding). Xinjiang, which borders on countries such as Kazakhstan and Mongolia, is even further away from the sea. In addition to the map above, Wikimedia Commons has a map of China which may help give some perspective on all this.

The vast majority of the land in Xinjiang is uninhabited desert; the population is found in the mountains and in oases around the edges of the deserts. The staple food is not rice, but wheat products such as bread and noodles. Commonly-used flavourings include cumin and other fragrant spices.

Xinjiang has a significant Muslim population, so you won't find the predominance of pork dishes here that you would in other Chinese cuisines [see footnote]. Instead, the main food animals are sheep and goats, though other animals such as chickens are also eaten. Typical dishes include laghman (handpulled noodles with a lamb-based sauce), big-plate chicken (a stew of chicken and potatoes), flatbreads, lamb grilled on skewers, and samsa (lamb-stuffed pastries similar to samosas). Rice is reserved for festive dishes such as pulao, a dish based on rice flavoured with meat and vegetables.

According to Wikipedia, the majority population of Xinjiang at the 2000 census was Uyghur (sometimes spelt "Uighur"), with Han Chinese coming a close second. Hence, while Mandarin is widely used in Xinjiang, so is the Uyghur language, which is a Turkic language (as opposed to the Sino-Tibetan Mandarin) written in an alphabet derived from Arabic. Here's an example of a menu from Xinjiang written in Chinese, English, and Uyghur. For the same reason, you may see the food of the region referred to as Xinjiang food (新疆菜/Xīnjiāng cài), Uyghur food, or sometimes Chinese Muslim food (though the latter is a broader term).

Uyghur food is not found only within Xinjiang; according to Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Dugiud, Uyghur restaurants and street food stalls are common in central China, and [personal profile] pinetree notes in comments that in fact Xinjiang food is now found all over China. Even London now has a Xinjiang restaurant — Silk Road in Camberwell.

For more on the food of Xinjiang, see Fuchsia Dunlop's Gourmet article on the subject and two Life On Nanchang Lu posts: food seen and eaten on a trip to Xinjiang, and ten must-try Uyghur foods.

Footnote: [0] Indeed, while in most regions of China the character 肉 (ròu, literally "meat") is taken in the absence of further qualification to mean pork, you can't necessarily assume that this is the case on a Xinjiang menu; here's a photo of part of the menu at Silk Road, which simply uses 肉 to indicate a lamb dish, rather than 羊肉 (yáng ròu/sheep/lamb). I'm not entirely sure how widespread this practice is, however.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

A very quick post today — I've been away for a long weekend, so I'm behind on everything and don't have the energy to write much!

I'm compiling a list of places to buy Chinese ingredients online. Does anyone have any personal recommendations? I'm in the UK, but I'm also interested in places that will deliver elsewhere.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

I think I may have mentioned this before, but one very useful type of resource in learning to read Chinese menus is the English-language Chinese food blog, particularly those which include the Chinese names of dishes and ingredients.

Here are a few examples of the kind of blogs I find useful — I would love to hear of any others that people can recommend.

I'm mainly looking for sources that I can trust to know what they're talking about (and are willing to admit when they aren't sure about something), and that discuss the history and context of the food rather than just posting recipes. Have you got any good suggestions for me?

I'd also like to mention some blogs written by friends of mine; these have a wider focus than the ones listed above, but their authors know plenty about Chinese food and often post about it (usually, like me, in a London context): bellaphon, Eat Noodles Love Noodles, and Tamarind and Thyme.

Somewhat relatedly, here's advance notice that I won't be posting during October 2010 (except on the 1st, which is this Friday). I'm taking a month-long blog sabbatical and will be using the time to research new topics, take more photos, and seek out even more exciting Chinese food. I'll still be reading and commenting on other people's blogs, though, and I'm always available at kake@earth.li if you feel like inviting me out for an adventure!

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
Coarsely-chopped spring onions, red chillies, and green chillies are piled on a plate, intermixed with stems of fresh green coriander.  A few other vegetable dishes are just visible in the background.

I've mentioned Chinese cold dishes (涼菜/liáng cài) before, in my post on 涼拌黃瓜/liáng bàn huáng guā/cucumber salads, but since I love them so much I wanted to talk more about them.

As noted in the post mentioned above, most of the Chinese-language menus I've seen here in London have separate cold dish sections. These might be listed simply under the heading of 涼菜, which translates very literally as "cold dishes", or as 涼菜類 (liáng cài lèi), which means something along the lines of "cold dish category". Sometimes they're also labelled in English as "starters", which I feel is a bit misleading — it's by no means mandatory to have them strictly at the beginning of your meal, and as is usual in Chinese dining, they're shared between the party rather than being ordered individually.

There are quite a few vegetable salads in the Chinese cold dish repertoire — as well as the cucumber salads linked above, I also rather like 老虎菜 (lǎo hǔ cài), or tiger salad, which is a very spicy mixture of shredded chillies, fresh coriander, spring onions, and sometimes other things like green bell peppers, cucumber, dry tofu strips, and so on. A rather chunky (albeit nice and colourful) version of this is pictured above. EatingAsia has a good post on the subject of raw vegetables in Chinese cuisine, including details of a really intriguing-sounding fresh mint salad from Yunnan province. Another good one is three-shred salad, which I've seen listed as 紅油三絲 (hóng yóu sān sī) — the three shredded things are usually something like carrot, kelp, and bean thread noodles.

涼菜 aren't restricted to vegetarian options, though. Finely-sliced pig's ear in chilli oil (紅油豬耳/hóng yóu zhū ěr), sliced pork with mashed garlic (蒜泥白肉/suàn ní bái ròu), and man-and-wife offal slices (夫妻肺片/fū qī fèi piàn) are some of my favourites. Jellyfish (海蜇/hǎi zhé) is a common ingredient, often combined with other ingredients such as shredded chicken (海蜇拌雞絲/hǎi zhé bàn jī sī) or cucumber (海蜇黃瓜/hǎi zhé huáng guā), or simply dressed with Chinese vinegar (老醋海蜇/lǎo cù hǎi zhé).

Here's a list of the cold dishes I've posted about. And here are some photos of cold dish menus, all from restaurants in London: Golden Day, Le Wei Xiang, and Sanxia Renjia. If you want to see some more photos of the actual food, check out my 涼菜 tag on Flickr!

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

I've previously discussed Chinese keyboard input via pinyin, but I've recently also been playing with handwriting input.

For reasons I'll describe below, I bought a Wacom Bamboo graphics tablet about a month ago. Sadly, my (OS X) laptop has no native support for inputting Chinese characters via handwriting — apparently only MacBooks with multitouch trackpads can do that, regardless of peripherals. (Note: iPhone owners might want to check out Finger, though I haven't tried it.) The tablet does come with its own input software, but it's a bit clunky — you can only enter one character at a time, and if you hesitate for a moment in the middle of writing it, it will make a (usually wrong) guess at what you intended and you'll have to start over. So I'm sticking with pinyin for now.

The reason I bought the tablet, though, was Skritter. This is an online tool that lets you practise writing Chinese (and Japanese) characters. It does cost money (just under US$10/month at the time of writing), but they offer a two-week free trial [see footnote].

The idea behind Skritter is pretty simple — to make character-writing practice easy and enjoyable. And it works! I knew within half an hour of starting to play with it that I'd be keeping up my subscription at the end of the free trial, and by the end of the next day I'd ordered my graphics tablet because I found it so frustrating to have to stop "playing" when my hand was aching from using the trackpad to write the characters.

The Skritter site supplies a number of character/word lists that you can learn from, but it also gives you the facility to make your own lists, which is very useful for someone like me who only wants to learn characters from a specific context. Like Anki, it uses spaced repetition algorithms to choose sensible intervals for retesting you on each word or character. Another very nice feature is one mentioned by a comment on a CNET post[...] it draws beautiful characters, which makes me feel good everytime, much better than when I try to write on a piece of paper.a post on the Plot Hatching Factory blog goes into this issue in more detail.

Learning to write may seem like a sidetrack from my goal of learning to read Chinese menus, but I've found that it's very helpful in terms of remembering the characters, learning to differentiate between similar-looking characters, and reading characters that are printed in a blurry or unusual font.

Finally, a note on ergonomics. When I first started using the Bamboo tablet, it made my hand ache/feel numb after a few minutes of use, but I figured out that this was due to my tendency to steady my hand by sticking out my little finger and resting it on the tablet. I stopped doing this, and the problem went away.

Footnote: [0] You need to supply credit/debit card details for the free Skritter trial, and will need to explicitly cancel if you decide not to continue after the two weeks. They do send a couple of reminders though. If you're thinking of giving it a go, you can use my referral link, which will give you two extra free weeks if/when you make your first payment (I also get two free weeks if you do this, but if that bothers you then I can always buy you a pint in return, or something).

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.

kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

Just a quick post today, to mention one of the most useful computer tools I've found so far for helping me access and organise my vocab lists and transcribed menus — grep.

grep is a commandline tool that should be available on all Unixes (Linux, Solaris, OS X, etc), and on all those I have access to, it deals just fine with Chinese characters. This means that I can easily check through all my textfile documents to find, for example, dishes with prawns in: grep 蝦 *.txt

This is pretty powerful on its own, really, but the one thing it can't do is take account of simplified vs. traditional characters — and some of my lists/menus are copy-pasted from sources that use simplified characters, while the ones I've written/transcribed myself are in traditional characters.

So I wrote some Perl to make this easier, and you can find it on CPAN. It includes a commandline utility called dets (desensitise traditional-simplified) which builds a regexp from a string and can be used like so: grep `dets 蝦` *.txt (dets 蝦 returns [虾蝦]).

I realise I don't usually write about geek stuff on here, so eyes may be glazing over at this point — but if the owners of the remaining eyes have any comments, patches, or bug reports, I would love to hear them.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

A few months ago I posted about Chinese keyboard input via pinyin, mostly focusing on OS X (since that's the platform I use). Here's an update on things I've found out since then.

Firstly, I came across a couple of comprehensive websites on the subject: Pinyin Joe covers MS Windows, Ubuntu Linux, and smartphones, while [chinese mac] unsurprisingly covers OS X and other Mac operating systems.

There are also a few specific things that I've found particularly useful on OS X (10.6, though some of this applies to older versions too). One of these is that if you switch to pinyin input and then bring up the input methods menu again (by clicking on the little flag in the menu bar), it will have various extra pinyin-specific options including a Preferences dialogue. Under the General section in this, you can increase the font size in the "candidate window" (character dropdown) — very handy if you don't have brilliant eyesight.

Another Preferences option is "show input keys", which if ticked will show the pinyin and tones as you scroll down the candidate list. This does seem to slow things down a bit, but it can be useful on occasion if you're feeling the need to review your tones.

Something else I didn't realise before is that in pinyin input mode I can type "yu2" instead of just "yu", and it won't bother showing me things like 芋 (yù/yu4/taro).

Finally, in the comments on my previous post, [personal profile] pne asked about typing words rather than individual characters in OS X pinyin input. My reply was that while I'd noticed this was possible, I hadn't yet figured out how to add new words to the "dictionary" that OS X uses to decide which combinations of characters are plausible words. I have now! All you need to do is this:

  • Switch to pinyin input mode (see instructions on my previous post).
  • Type your word (e.g. type "niurou" for 牛肉/beef).
  • Press SPACE to get the dropdown — if your word appears, just choose it. Otherwise, there are a couple of possibilities:
    • It may offer a word that isn't actually the one you want, for example suppose you type "huangjiang", aiming for 黃姜 (turmeric), but it only offers you 黃醬 (yellow bean paste). If this happens, just press BACKSPACE and it will jump back to the first component it recognises (which may be a single character or a multi-character word), and offer you a dropdown for this.
      • If the correct character(s) are shown in this dropdown, just select them by pressing ENTER, and it will set these down and then move on to offer you a dropdown for the next recognised component (again, maybe a single character or maybe a multi-character word).
      • If this component is a multi-character one, and the correct characters aren't shown in the dropdown, press BACKSPACE again to break the component down even further.
    • It may not have any matching words at all — in this case, when you initially press SPACE it will just jump back to the first component it recognises, and offer you a dropdown for that one, then proceed as above.
  • The clever part is that it will now add this word to its dictionary, so the next time you type it, it will be there as an option in the dropdown.

Note that the above is more complicated to describe than it is to do — just have a play around with it and it should soon make sense. I also made a slightly clunky diagram, which may help.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
A large table covered with a white tablecloth and with several dishes and steamer baskets arranged on top.  The steamers contain rice in lotus leaf, siu mai, har gao, and suchlike items.  A dish of cheung fun is in the foreground, and saucers of various dipping sauces sit between the steamers.

As mentioned last week, I've declared August to be dim sum month! I'll be posting two of my favourite dim sum dishes each week this month, so today I thought I'd give a quick overview of what dim sum is all about. (Update, August 2011: here's a list of all the dim sum dishes I've ever posted about.)

Essentially, a dim sum meal consists of a number of small dishes of mostly savoury, mostly snack-like food, accompanied by large quantities of Chinese tea. In the UK, the term "dim sum" is used both for the type of food served, and for the occasion itself. Elsewhere, "yum cha" (literally "drinking tea") is a more common term for the act of going out to eat dim sum. A dim sum meal may last less than an hour — a good few of my dim sum outings have been on weekdays with the London Perl Mongers, so people need to get back to work — or it may be slow and leisurely. I think my longest dim sum lunch ever lasted just over three hours.

The Chinese characters for "dim sum" are 點心, which in Mandarin is diǎn xīn. However, dim sum is a solidly Cantonese tradition, and so the names of dim sum dishes, as well as the overall term "dim sum", are almost always transliterated with Cantonese spellings and pronunciations. (Note: I'll still be giving the Mandarin/pinyin for the dishes I post about this month, since many of the characters also appear on non-dim-sum menus.)

Dim sum is a breakfast/brunch/lunch meal, not only out of tradition, but also because it involves plentiful tea-drinking — evening drinks like wine and beer don't really go with this sort of food, and you probably wouldn't want all the caffeine from the tea in the evening. Like 火鍋/huǒ guō/hotpot, it's a highly social occasion, and the more people you have along the better. All dishes are shared, and there's no concept of starters or mains — it all arrives as and when it's ready, and it's fair game for whoever wants it. Some items (e.g. dumplings, pastries) come in multiples of three or four, and others (e.g. rice, chicken feet, tripe) come in a single bowl which you can serve yourself from as required.

Generally when I go out for dim sum, I find things go smoothest when one person puts themselves in charge of the ordering. Having one person in charge means you're more likely to get a nice spread of dishes — ideally, you'd have a mix of steamed, fried, and baked dishes, with a variety of ingredients. Often, instead of ordering by telling a member of staff what you want, you'll be given a paper menu with tickyboxes on which you check off the required items (photo). Some restaurants even still have dim sum carts, which can be fun — these are heated trollies filled with steamer baskets of dim sum, pushed around the dining room by various waitstaff (photo). As they pass, their proprietors will show you what they have, and you just tell them which items you want. This works nicely in terms of getting food on your table without any waiting, but the quality of the food can suffer as it sits around in the trolley. (Londoners: trolley dim sum is available at Chuen Cheng Ku and the New World.)

The most important thing to bear in mind when trying to find good dim sum is that while some restaurants will have a dedicated dim sum chef (or team of chefs) to make the dishes from scratch, other places just buy the items pre-made and frozen. If you see a Chinese menu that includes ten or fewer dim sum dishes, it's a pretty good bet that these aren't being made in-house [see footnote]. For proper dim sum, you want to look for places that have entirely separate dim sum menus with dozens of items — and bear in mind that it's usually different chefs in charge of dim sum and in charge of the regular menu, so a restaurant with indifferent à la carte may well do good dim sum, and vice versa. Take a look at Mr Noodles' post on old school dim sum for some more hints. Dim sum is normally only served until late afternoon; common hours in London are 11am-5pm.

One aspect of interest in the UK at the moment is the rise of the "dim sum chain" (example). Unlike the traditional dim sum places, these chains feature cocktails, snazzy decor, cool music, dim sum served right through to the end of the evening, and polite (even obsequious) service. Prices tend to be higher than in the old-school dim sum joints, and the menus can occasionally be frustrating if you're already familiar with the usual terms and would like to know exactly what something advertised as a "pork dumpling" actually is. Having said that, they're not all bad, and they can work well both as an accessible introduction to dim sum and as an occasional diversion for those tempted by the terribly aberrant practice of eating dim sum in the evening rather than at lunchtime :)

Speaking of aberrant practices, going out for dim sum on one's own can be frustrating, since it's hard to get a nice spread of dishes without being forced to over-order. If you're lucky, you'll find a place that offers a dim sum taster platter and does dim sum that's actually good. One such place is Pearl Liang, near Paddington Station in London; their nine-piece dim sum platter is shown below.

A wide circular bamboo steamer containing nine pieces of steamed dim sum, including a char siu bao sitting in the middle.

Footnote: [0] There are two exceptions to the "short dim sum menus are a bad sign" rule.

The first is if they mention hand-made dumplings. Chinese dumplings per se are not purely a dim sum item, though the non-dim-sum version is more rustic and less delicate. On most menus these are listed with the rice etc, but sometimes they're set aside in a "dim sum" section, presumably for marketing reasons. They aren't really dim sum, but they can be good, particularly if you see the character 手/shǒu/hand in the name, for example as 手工水餃/shǒu gōng shǔi jiǎo/"handmade boiled dumplings". Dumplings that are offered in large quantities (≥10) at cheap prices are likely to be hand-made in-house. Some menus may list both the pre-made frozen items and those made in-house (example — note the relatively expensive steamed items, in contrast to the 30p-per-piece pork/chicken "Chinese Dumplings").

The other exception is one mentioned in comments by Sung a.k.a. Mr Noodles — ultra-posh places (see his comment for more).

Related posts:
If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
An excerpt of a menu reading thus: 蔬菜 - Veg. 空心菜 (清炒, 熗炒, 蒜蓉, 上湯) — Tong cai (plain fried, stir [...]). 芥蘭 (清炒, 蒜蓉, 上湯, 白灼, 蠔油) — Fried Gai-Lan (plain fried, garlic, in soup [...]).

While I've previously had a gentle dig at mix-and-match meat-in-sauce Chinese takeaway dishes, the presence of mix-and-match green vegetable dishes on a Chinese menu is actually a good sign. Generic Anglo-Chinese food often neglects the vegetable side of things, aside from items like "mixed seasonal vegetables" (rarely actually seasonal) and "stirfried beansprouts", but a good Chinese restaurant will offer several green vegetable options, cooked in a number of styles. The Red Cook blog has a nice post on this subject.

Here are some leafy (and other) greens you might see listed on a menu:

豆苗dòu miáomangetout leaves/pea shoots
通菜tōng càiwater spinach/morning glory/ong choy
空心菜kōng xīn càianother name for 通菜
菠菜bō càispinach
菜心cài xīnchoy sum
芥蘭jiè lánChinese broccoli/gai lan
西芥蘭xī jiè lánWestern broccoli/calabrese
冬瓜dōng guāwinter melon
苦瓜kǔ guābitter gourd

You might also see 時菜 (shí cài), which means "seasonal vegetables" — and for completeness' sake, I should also mention 白菜 (bái cài), though given how thoroughly I've already covered this term, I expect regular readers already know more about it than they ever wanted to.

Here are some styles you might see these vegetables offered in:

豉汁/豆豉chǐ zhī/dòu chǐwith black bean sauce
豉汁辣椒chǐ zhī là jiāowith black bean and chilli sauce
蒜泥/蒜茸/蒜蓉suàn ní/suàn róng/suàn róngwith mashed/minced garlic
清炒qīng chǎoplain stirfried
姜汁/姜絲jiāng zhī/jiāng sīwith ginger
上湯shàng tāngin consommé
XO醬XO jiàngwith XO sauce
蠔油háo yóuwith oyster sauce

A few notes on some of these:

Interestingly, the menu pictured at the top of this post offers both 清炒 and 嗆炒 as options, translating the former as "plain fried" and the latter as "stir fried". According to mandarintools.com, 嗆 means "pungent", so I'm not entirely sure what 嗆炒 actually does mean. Update, August 2010: I tried asking about this in the restaurant the menu belongs to, but had a lot of trouble making myself understood. After going around in a few conversational circles I gave up and just ordered some 嗆炒空心菜 — it turned out to be stirfried with dried red chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. Update II, August 2010: I've just noticed I was writing that character wrong — it's 熗, not 嗆. mandarintools.com says 熗 means "to cook in soy". So now I am even more baffled.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment (here's how) and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See my introductory post to the Chinese menu project for what these posts are all about.
kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)

Just a quick one today — I realised that I haven't yet explained how to work out where the tone marks go on pinyin transliterations. First, here's a reminder of what Mandarin tone marks look like and what they mean:

The tone mark always goes on a vowel, never on a consonant. As for which vowel, there's a handy chart on pinyin.info, but essentially it just works like this:

  • If there's an "a" or an "e", it gets the tone mark (you never get both "a" and "e" together in the same syllable).
  • If there's an "ou", the "o" gets the tone mark.
  • In all other cases, the final vowel gets the tone mark.

Simple! I should also note that if you can't type the accents, you can use numbers to indicate tones — for example, guā would be gua1, yú would be yu2, shuǐ would be shui3, and ròu would be rou4. The "fifth tone", or neutral/toneless tone, is written either without a number or as e.g. fu5.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See here for what these posts are all about.


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