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Chinese culinary terms in English, seen through Mandarin

Rodney Mantle and Shirley Li?, Liaoning Normal University, Dalian, China

To many in the west, Chinese food is what they know from “Chinese Restaurants” (much decried in China), but the enormous range of regional variations is unknown to most. Teaching English and learning (Mandarin) Chinese in North East China and later in Shanghai and Shenzhen introduced Rodney to some of that variety. As he discovered, Oriental meals have no set courses in the western sense and are highly communal, not least at class banquets.

One of his many discoveries was the variety of sweet dishes, far greater than that available in “Chinese Restaurants”. Among the surprises was that, especially in family meals, the tomato’s status as a fruit is taken seriously: slices of tomato appeared covered in ... sugar. The first time he encountered this dish in Dalian, its name was 白雪红山 (Pinyin: bái xuě hóng shān ), meaning “white snow [on] red mountain[s]”.

tomatoes and sugar

A later encounter with the same dish proved to be an introduction to another aspect of culinary regionalism: changes of name. Exactly the same dish was known as 糖拌西红柿 (táng bàn xī hóng shì), meaning “sugar mix[ed with] western persimmon [=tomato]”.

This photo, taken in Hangzhou, shows another aspect of the tomato’s fruit status: Tiramisu with tomatoes.

red plum

A delicious “dessert” came his way once in the Northeast: 水果面包夹 (shuǐ guǒ miàn bāo jiā), meaning “fruit mix[ed with] pastry”. Subsequent attempts to find it elsewhere failed.

red plum

Another “dessert” proved less elusive: 红梅含瑞 (hóng méi hán ruì), meaning “red plum keep in the mouth auspicious”. At Rodney’s regular restaurant in Dalian, the staff drew this item (not on the menu) to his attention: a wedding party had ordered more of it than they could eat ...

heart very soft

Subsequent enquiries established that this delicacy was widespread, but under different names: in Shanghai, it was called 心太软 ( xīn tài ruǎn), meaning “heart very soft”. Elsewhere the names were: 开口笑 (kāi kǒu xiào), meaning “open your mouth [and] smile” and 桂花糯米红枣 (guì huā nuò mǐ hóng zǎo), meaning “osmanthus sticky rice with dates” (the most accurate description).

These and many other experiences made Rodney wonder about common English terms for “Chinese” food. Shirley Liú (刘静宇, liú jìng yǔ), a postgraduate student of Chinese at their university who was teaching him Chinese, and he set out on a voyage of etymological discovery. She and Rodney would like to record our appreciation of the invaluable help from the late Prof. Gary Morgan of Oxnard College, California, as well as Michael Tang and Brian Doyle in Australia.

Linguistic immigration

The first record of a Chinese in England was the stay in 1687 of the Catholic convert Shen Fu-Tsung at the Court of James II. He appears to have left no linguistic traces, but the activities of priests, merchants and sailors which led to his arrival in Europe soon started to have effects.

Most of the Chinese who introduced their cooking to the west came from Southern China. As a result, most of the “Chinese” terms in English derive from Cantonese . Menus confirm that the terms discussed below (initially with variant spellings) are used in all the English-speaking countries. Sources for this article included the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the Online Etymological Dictionary (OnEtD). No systematic attempt appears to have been made to establish dates of first use in Australian and Canadian English.

The earliest linguistic imports reached English by sea contacts with China. The first “Chinese” word recorded in any English-language source appears to have been “ketchup”, in 1690 (OnEtD) . This probably originated in South Eastern China, from the Fujian dialect. In Chinese, it is 醢汁 (hǎi zhī); the local pronunciation is: koi chip/goi zhip. It means: a preparation of small fishes, shrimps, etc., salted and pounded with a little water and eaten raw with strong condiments. Originally anglicised as catchup, it then became catsup, which is still in use in the U.S. Early English-language recipes included among their ingredients mushrooms, walnuts, cucumbers, and oysters. The modern form of the sauce may have started with U.S. seamen adding tomatoes. Unlike most of the words below, it bears no relation to the modern expression, which is 番茄沙司(fān qié shā sī and Cantonese fan1 ke4 sa1 si1= tomato sauce).

During the 18th century trade (tea, ceramics, silk) brought many Chinese briefly to Britain but with no culinary linguistic consequence.

Human immigration

During the 19th century, the U.S.A., Canada, Australia and New Zealand had very similar immigration patterns. All except Canada experienced a Gold Rush, which attracted inter-alia Chinese immigrants. On the West Coast of the U.S.A. and Canada, Chinese labourers also came to help build the railways. Catering soon became one of their main activities: in some small places in Western Canada, for example, the only restaurant was run by Chinese. Rodney has vivid memories from the late 1960s of a little town, almost deserted, called Copperopolis, in the Californian Gold Rush country: its one, dilapidated restaurant sported a faded sign: “English and Chinese Cuisine”.

When they were no longer needed, many returned to (southern) China or went to big cities, especially New York. Those (mostly men) who stayed were subject to discrimination. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act The “White Australia” policy was similar (reportedly, at one stage, there were more Chinese in Australia than any other national group). Despite this, by the 1890s there was a Chinese teahouse in Sydney.

The U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, and subsequent legislation removed the last barriers.

In the British Isles there was no Gold Rush, and the Irish constructed the canals and railways. Throughout the 19th century, there was little Chinese immigration (at the turn of the century, there were 545 Chinese residents, all male), although there was a transient seafaring population. The Chinese were known for laundries.

After World War II, the English-speaking countries became home to more families, predominantly from southern China (including Hong Kong and Singapore [then still British colonies] and Taiwan). Restaurants were opened in increasing numbers, especially by immigrants from Hong Kong.

In the U.K. after World War II, servicemen and residents returning from the Far East created a new demand, just at the time when high-street launderettes eclipsed Chinese laundries. In the early years of this century, there were over 10,000 Chinese restaurants and takeaways all over the U.K.

What is Chinese?

Rodney had always thought that Chinese and Cantonese were separate languages that used the same characters but did not converge at all phonetically , but this is not entirely true.

The linguistic immigrants

Many first recorded written uses come from restaurant reviews and cookbooks from New York, but the words soon spread to other English-speaking countries.

Let’s start with “chow mein”, that staple of western “Chinese” menus. Its etymology made Rodney think there would be a regular pattern of phonetic correspondence between Chinese and English. The Chinese (chǎo miàn) means literally "fried flour". But what about the Cantonese? That is romanised as tsau2 min6 . The first recorded U.S. use was 1903 (OED, OnEtD), and the first U.K. mention in 1932 describes it as a “Sino-American Dish”.

chow mein

“Chop suey” turned out to be similar, if a little less obvious. The Chinese 杂碎 (zá sui; Cantonese dzap6 soey3 ) means “chopped, cooked entrails”. The first recorded American usage was in 1888 (OED, OnEtD).

Chinese immigration after World War II brought new words. “Dim sum” is easy to link with Chinese: 点心 (diǎn xīn; Cantonese dim2 sum1). With the literal sense of "touch [the] heart," it means "appetizer," “snack”. It is first recorded in 1948 in the U.S. and 1978 in the U.K. (OED).

“Wok” first appeared in the U.S. in 1948 (OED [OnEtD: 1952] ), 1967 in Australia and 1977 in the U.K. (OED); the Chinese is : more obvious in Cantonese wok6 than Chinese guō.

“Wonton” is 馄饨 (hún tún; Cantonese: wan4 tan1), which exists only in this combination, meaning “dumpling soup”. Its first recorded uses were in 1948 in the U.S. and 1972 in the U.K. (OED).

Some erratics

“Congee” (often seen in China) breaks every etymological mould. The Chinese (Pinyin: zhōu; Cantonese dzuk1), usually translated as “porridge”, is not the source, and there is no relationship to the French “congé”. According to the OED, it is an Anglo-Indian word (first use 1698) meaning “water in which rice has been boiled”.

Have you ever wondered where “chopsticks” comes from? The first recorded English usage in the culinary sense was in 1699 (OED, OnEtD). The Chinese 筷子 (Pinyin: kuài zi; Cantonese fai3 dzi2) means "quick ones". No obvious phonological relationship here! “Sticks” needs no explanation, but “chop”? "Chop chop" is Pidgin English and slang, from Cantonese (Chinese and Cantonese often repeat a character in intensify its effect). There could be a link through (kuài) = quick. The Cantonese pronunciation of 快快 is fai3fai3. Some Cantonese believe that initially British men in Guangdong heard fai3fai3 as “kapkap”. Your guess is as good as ours!

“Tofu” has a strange history. The first recorded use of Chinese (Pinyin:dòu fu = "beans" + "rotten"; Cantonese: dau6 fu6) was in China during the Han Dynasties (202 BC - 220 AD). In 757AD, during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907AD), a priest, 鉴真 (jiàn zhēn) took it to Nara Period Japan (710 - 794 AD). In the English-speaking countries, it was initially called “bean curd”. The first recorded use of “tofu” in the U.S was in 1880 (OED, OnEtD). From the 1970s, it was considered a health food, and “beancurd” was increasingly replaced by “tofu”. The first recorded U.K. usage was in 1981 (OED).

May your next Chinese meal be more interesting!

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2016, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Eye Issue 50, 2016

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