Rosetta Stone Chinese (Mandarin) Helps Woman Converse About Food: Ni chi le ma?

candymakerI’ve noticed that there’s a bias toward food language in Mandarin. When you run into a friend on the street or meet someone for a date, they’ll greet you with Ni chi le ma? or “Have you eaten?” If you say you haven’t, the first thing you’ll do together is go out for some food. There are four words for “to fry” and several for “to cook,” and I have yet to figure out the nuances between some of them.

There’s a practical reason that my own vocabulary is broader when it comes to food. I have to eat every day, and buying food is one of the main opportunities for an English teacher to practice Mandarin. But I think there’s more to it than that. Here in Sichuan Province, people are very proud of the food, and they want to know how you like it. My students frequently ask me what my favorite Chinese dish is, if I can use chopsticks, and if I like spicy food. The sheer diversity of dishes under the umbrella of “Sichuanese food” is staggering—quite literally, everyday there’s something new to try.

So, for now, I’m quite pleased when I can tell the chef how much spice to add, how to cook it, what ingredients to add more of, or how I liked the food. Of course, it’s a disappointment for everyone when I can’t understand half so much of the non-food conversation that follows. That’s my next priority, then on to the writings of Laozi.

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  • krs

    I’ve lived in China for nearly a decade off and on, and I always thought that focus on food one of the most charming aspects of Chinese culture. If my friends or students went on holiday, they would often bring back gifts of food and the first thing they wanted to talk about was all the regional specialties they had sampled. I still laugh when I see how many vacation pictures of what they eat are posted on Facebook, but after so many years there, I often do the same thing! Good luck with learning the rest of the language, but it’s so fun to learn about food as you’re eating it!

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