Help a white guy to shop for food in Chinatown
October 11, 2004 8:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm a white guy trying to shop for food in Chinatown. Are there any resources to help me with some key vocab? [mi]

I've begun venturing into Chinatown here in NYC for my meat and fish needs, as well as some Asia-specific ingredients. Unfortunately, being the white Jew that I am, the language barrier is a problem, and I know that making an effort to converse in someone's native language goes a long way. What I really need are the tools to be able to ask for specific food in Chinese. I see this as breaking down into two areas:
  • General conversation points- hello, bye, thanks, excuse me, yes, no, this one here (for pointing), I want [x]
  • Descriptors- more, less, big, small
  • Specific foodstuffs- various types of fish and shellfish, beef, pork, chicken, black bean
Amazon has a book on the subject, but it's not encouraging. Does this kind of reference info exist anywhere online? I refuse to believe that no one has tackled this dire problem!
posted by mkultra to Food & Drink (14 answers total)
Look for gyoza - say it 'jow tza', the ow like ouch. These pot stickers can be cooked in a pan.

If you want mainland mandarin, watch Hero for pronunciation. If you want Taiwanese, watch Won Kar Wei.

Here's a guide.
posted by four panels at 9:09 AM on October 11, 2004

I've heard good things about this book (which seems to have just come back into print, it's been unfindable for ages).
posted by zadcat at 9:16 AM on October 11, 2004

Chinese people don't always use Chinese in Chinese restuarants. I find it amusing that when someone who speaks Mandarin walks into a Cantonese restaurant, they'll order in English because of the language difference.
posted by bobo123 at 9:28 AM on October 11, 2004

fp- Yeah, I'm familiar with the names of most native foods, it's the western foods I have trouble with. Gyoza, btw, is Japanese anyway ;) (or is it the same in Chinese?)

Thanks for that reference page, though- it's a good start, though I almost wish there were sound files along with it.

zadcat- Seriously? It's the same book I linked to- a single one-star review, but I get the impression the reviewer doesn't know what he's looking for.
posted by mkultra at 9:34 AM on October 11, 2004

mkultra: I was pointing to An Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters, not the same book you were looking at.
posted by zadcat at 9:53 AM on October 11, 2004

The Japanese word gyoza was derived from jiaozi in the Chinese Shandong dialect; the characters for it though are the same.
posted by four panels at 9:59 AM on October 11, 2004

God, that's so wierd- it's fine now, but I SWEAR it was going to the other book earlier! That (correct) one looks pretty good, though- I may have to check it out- thanks!
posted by mkultra at 10:35 AM on October 11, 2004

Chinese people don't always use Chinese in Chinese restuarants.

...and not everyone who works at/runs/owns a Chinese restaurant is Chinese. Our nearest Chinese restaurant (named "China Station") is owned and operated by a Vietnamese family (their spring rolls rock, their egg rolls suck).
posted by m@ at 10:45 AM on October 11, 2004

Also, some places are run by Cantonese speakers, some by Mandarin speakers, and some by Fujianese speakers, and not everyone can speak Mandarin. (Assuming you'd learn some Mandarin -- which is a pain in the ass even without the tones.)

But chances are good that if you can write a character or two to show the folks that work there, you'd be set.
posted by armage at 12:36 PM on October 11, 2004

I shop alot in asian markets in Northern NJ and I use two techniques:
First, the powers that be require imported food to disclose, in english, all ingredients, usually found on a sticker slapped onto the packaging near where the ingredients are already printed in Japanese. This helps me figure out what mysterious and intriguing packages of food might be containing.

Second, I will often ask an asian shopper if they speak english, and then to help me decypher the mystery product... Most asian stuff isn't so costly, so I I don't really mind buying weird stuff that doesn't pan out...

Also, I suggest you get on a train and check out Flushing, in Queens. Words can't describe all the wonderful food to be had there...
posted by Fupped Duck at 12:55 PM on October 11, 2004

I don't think the "learning how to ask for things in Chinese" is going to work that well in Chinese supermarkets. I mean, not to say that you can't try, but like some folks here have pointed out, you're probably going to run up against a dialect you don't speak, and resorting to English, anyhow (which I'm sure a Chinese shop in NYC should be able to handle -- Chinese merchants aren't going to mess up their business by having people who can't understand and serve people in rudimentary English). I don't think the guys who man fish and meat counters really care one way or the other whether you're ordering in their native language. In fact, where I'm from, the Chinese supermarkets are huge and so cheap that everyone in the area goes there, Indians, West Indians, white people, and they all get served fine without knowing the language.

Of course, I'd still encourage you to learn Mandarin, at least.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 4:44 PM on October 11, 2004

their spring rolls rock, their egg rolls suck

Hang on - I thought that "egg rolls" was just USAian for "spring rolls". I've never seen egg rolls in Australia - if they're not spring rolls, what are they?

By the way - that's not a spring roll. THIS is a spring roll.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:58 PM on October 11, 2004

The Vietnamese version of the "spring roll" is called nem and has one or all of a range of fillings. Here in Hanoi, they tend to run a little on the greasy side, but some of the better (not always the more expensive) places use hotter oil and therefore make crunchier and less greasy rolls.

The phonemes and tones in Mandarin (and Vietnamese) are out of HAND difficult. You ought to have some other application for the language if you intend to make the kind of serious study that you would need to be even remotely understood.

As others have said, English is the common language in a NYC shop likely to be patronized by people from all over the world. In my opinion, more important than learning the spoken language is learning the protocols for getting service. Most Chinese natives have a much more, ah, streamlined idea of queuing and general courtesy in places such as food shops and public transportation. Knowing what's appropriate in terms to asserting yourself will help you get what you're after more than speaking the language.
posted by squirrel at 6:16 PM on October 11, 2004

Are tones in Mandarin any more more difficult than tones in other Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese and Taiwanese? That hasn't been my personal experience (but then again, Mandarin is my native dialect). Are there any particular reasons why you believe Mardarin is harder?

Also, acclimating oneself to the atrociously-delivered Chinese lines by whites in kung fu movies can make any native Chinese speaker a decent guesser. :) In my experience, most non-natives use some combination of first (neutral) and second (rising) tones, so most vowels are reasonably guessable if you're aware of that bias. It's the weird Anglicization of the consonants that I've never figured out.

I am in agreement with the others in that dialect differences, especially the Mandarin/Cantonese split, has made English the lingua franca of most Chinese establishments, especially restaurants. There'll be some English-speakers in the larger markets/stalls for sure. Even in San Francisco's Chinatown I use English exclusively, since most of the Chinese there seem to speak Cantonese--but then again, SF is probably the most touristy Chinatown I've been to, so this may not apply to your situation.
posted by DaShiv at 10:12 PM on October 11, 2004

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