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Common Food Related Chinese Words

Chinese words for food revolve around a few staples. Although the dishes are quite varied, because of the vastness of the country, only a few are in common use through the whole country.

The staple food is fan, or (cooked) rice. It is so essential that the word is also used to mean meal. Zao, wu, and wan are the words for morning, noon, and evening, respectively, so zao fan, wu fan, and wan fan refer to breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Other than rice, there are mian, or noodles. Frequenters of Cantonese are more familiar with the Cantonese term, fen. A cross between fan and mian are fen, which are flat shaped noodles made out of rice, instead of wheat, flour.

These starches can be stir fried, chao, or simply mixed, lao, with other foods. On Chinese menus, you will see references to chao fan, chao fen, or chao mian, as well as lao mian (ramen in Japanese) and lao fen.

For protein, the Chinese use mainly ji, chicken (of which the roman text could be a "short" version, rou, which is meat, usually pork, and fish. The "fish" character is the root word for many kinds of seafood. These are staples only of the coastal provinces. Whatever the meat, they come before, and therefore "modify" the starches discussed above.

Beef and lamb are uncommon in the Chinese diet, except in the far north, where the Mongols and other Moslems live on the edge of the country, and the society: Hence references to "Mongolian" beef or lamb. There are often political tensions between the eaters of such meats, and "Han" Chinese who eat more pork and chicken, because the latter are less efficient in the use of (scarece) water. Another source of tension along the same lines is between wearers of wool (Mongolian) and cotton (Han) clothes, again, because wool produced by sheep is more economical in the use of water.

Some drinks are recognizable to foreigners. Ka fei is an imported sound that means coffee. On the other hand, tea is indigenous to China, and is known locally as cha. This drink has found its way into some European languages as "chai." Sui means water, and so da sui is a transliteration for soda water, an example being Ke ka ke la (coca-cala).

Some Chinese foods are better known under non-Manderin names. For instance, the heart shaped dumplings used as appetizers are called dian xin, which means a bit of heart. But they are better known as the Cantonese Dim Sum. And there are fried dumplings called jiaozi that are better known by their Japanese name, gyoza.

And you pay for all of these things with yuan in China, won in Korea, and yen in Japanese. These are the respective countries' references to the small round coins that serve as basic currency units.