I have been eating at Mary Chung's restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge for many years. Before the present 464 Mass Ave., across the street at 447. Before that, there was Colleen's at 792-794 Main St. (where Royal East is now) and Joyce Chen's Small Eating Place at 302 Mass Ave. (where Thailand Café is now). Chinese food is a well-established MIT tradition, as laid out in Steven Levy's Hackers (it has an index entry). Though, in keeping with the premise of his book, Levy sets up the associated study of restaurant Chinese as arcana rather than culture and blows the intellectual curiosity fueling it all out of proportion. (I appreciate that readers of this blog are essentially pre-selected for believing that an interest in the language behind one's food is reasonable, if not required.)
Learning some Chinese from / for menus is hardly restricted to LISP programmers. James D. McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters is roughly half reproduced menus and half dictionary with his own character indexing system. Ping-gam Go's Understanding Chinese Characters by their Ancestral Forms has glossy color photos of San Francisco's Chinatown and accompanying text to teach how to read them. Locally, the Mei Wah website has photos from around Boston, particularly Chinatown, again with explanations.
By their nature, menus do not have much grammar. No matter what the language: a complicated French dish might have a number of past participles and a few prepositions, but it does not narrate how the chef prepares it. So it is primarily a matter of learning some Chinese food words and the writing system used to present them. Which is why the titles emphasize Chinese characters.
These days we go there most Friday evenings, often for takeout. And often get the same dishes. Namely,
- Refreshing Bean Sprouts — 涼拌豆芽 liang2ban4 dou4ya2.
- Dun Dun Noodles — 擔擔麵 dan4dan4 mian4.
- Ma Paw Tou Fu — 麻婆豆腐 ma2po2 dou4fu3.
The entrées are made vegetarian, obviously.
No single definition of 'word' works for all uses; there are whole books on the subject. But if taken to mean dictionary headword, that is, something that needs to be defined separately, then lots of Chinese words are made up of more than one character. The meaning of the word can be derived to varying degrees from the characters, just like etymologies is any other language. Most Chinese characters have two parts: a radical, which contributes a meaning in the sense of some kind of semantic category; and a phonetic part, which is related to a character that at one time sounded somewhat like the target. Chinese lexicography distinguishes between character dictionaries (字典 zi4dian3) and word dictionaries (辭典 ci2dian3).
Refreshing Bean Sprouts 涼拌豆芽 (Simplified: 凉拌豆芽) liang2ban4 dou4ya2 is bean sprouts with hot oil, vinegar and soy sauce. Liangban is cold vegetables with dressing, so roughly 'salad' (McCawley L3b.9b). zdic.net is a fairly comprehensive online dictionary. It has the classic Kangxi dictionary, which is the basis for radical classification, in Unicode form (scanned images can be found at kangxizidian.com). In its main dictionary, it includes English for each definition. These are somewhere between translations and glosses and include occasional solecisms, but they are still an aid to quicker navigation if one is not entirely fluent in Chinese. The entry for 凉 contains "凉拌 liángbàn [dress cold vegetable in sauce] ..." (with the fuller Chinese definition — click on the 详细解释 tab). This bilingual cookbook has about a half-dozen such recipes, including 凉拌秋葵 liang2ban4 qui1kui2 Cold Dressed Okra.
zhongwen.com is a Chinese-English dictionary with the added feature that it includes traditional Chinese character etymologies. These aim to explain why a particular radical and phonetic were chosen and to break down complex characters into smaller pieces with some kind of semantic justification. Sometimes these analyses correspond to the actual history of the character and sometimes they do not. Thus they have aspects of each of true etymologies, folk etymologies, and mnemonics. So, one finds that 涼 liang2 'cool(ing)' is like 水 shui3 'water' and 京 jing1 'hills' (the same jing as in 北京 Beijing). Or that 芽 ya2 'sprouts' are 艸 cao3 'plants' that sprout out like 牙 ya2 'teeth'. The simplified 凉 liang2 uses the 'ice' radical instead of the 'water' one. The same data is available in book form. 拌 ban4 is 'mix' and 豆 dou4 is 'bean'.
Dun Dun Noodles 擔擔麵 (Simplified: 担担面) dan4dan4 mian4 is spicy sauce on noodles, as explained by the Dan Dan Noodles Wikipedia page (and McCawley L3a.6b). The article is still a stub and says, "delicios" in the middle of it without any context.
麵 mian4 is 'noodles'. This is the mein in Lo Mein (撈麵 lao1 mian4) and Chow Mein (炒麵 chao3 mian4). The simplified form 面 is the phonetic part of the traditional character. It was already a character in its own right, meaning 'face'. There are a (relatively) small number of characters where the simplified character is not just a simpler way of drawing it but rather a merging of two characters by eliminating the more complicated one and writing both the same way.
The brief Wikipedia article does explain that Dan-Dan Noodles are named after the way vendors would carry them for sale on the street. And Google does find a few places that refer to the dish as "Carrying Pole Noodles". Google Image search does not find any such vendors but here is a blog entry with someone carrying two large baskets in such an arrangement and here is a travelogue showing an elderly gentleman carrying firewood. The pole itself is 扁擔 bian3dan1 (or bian3dan0). The pole and burden considered together is 擔子 dan4zi0. The character 擔 is used to write the verb dan1 'carry; bear' with one tone and the closely related noun dan4 'burden' with another. Google quickly finds that 擔擔子 dan1 dan4zi0 is used to translate שְׂאֵת מַשָּׂא śə’ēṯ maśśā’ 'bear a burden' in the last verse of Jeremiah 17 (don't do it on the Sabbath or else); the two Hebrew words are etymologically related, just like the two English and the two Chinese. The noodle dish is dan4dan4 or dan4dan0, with the noun duplicated. zdic says that vendors in Chengdu (成都 cheng2du1), Chungking (重庆 chong2qing4), etc. carried poles called 擔 dan4 to sell such noodles, hence the name.
The text of the first photo says that the man is carrying 35 kg in each basket, the second photo that the man is carrying 百斤 bai3 jin1 '100 catties'. In fact, 擔 dan4 is a unit of weight, usually defined in Chinese-English dictionaries as picul. A picul is 100 catties. Picul and catty are among the English words that come from Malay (fuller article requiring JSTOR access). Originally a picul is the amount one man can carry; the Malay word pikul means to carry a burden and the burden itself. So it serves the same gross estimation purpose as English hundredweight or French quintal (a word that had to do a bit of traveling to get where it did: < Medieval Latin quintale < Arabic قنطار qinṭār < Syriac? < Late Greek κεντηνάριον < Late Latin centenarium). As things were codified, a picul in Hong Kong was defined as exactly 133⅓ pounds avoirdupois, or around 60 kilos; the younger man is carrying more than average. The Chinese word is not unknown in English, as the Mandarin tan using Wade-Giles transcription or Cantonese tam. The first sense for Tan, n. in Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) is See Picul. It is still in Webster's Third New International, now the fourth tan sense. And the OED as the sixth tan sense, with the 1911 Britannica as the first citation. That seems worthy of restating in factoid form:
☛ The tan in Tan-Tan (Dan-Dan) Noodles is in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary and has been for almost a hundred years.
Interestingly enough, an older Mary Chung's menu used simplified characters for dan but not mian, with 担担麵. Relatively recent additions to the menu include Dun Dun sauce on fried tofu or bean sprouts, 旦旦豆腐 dan4dan4 dou4fu3 and 旦旦豆芽 dan4dan4 dou4ya2, written that way using the character 旦 dan4 'dawn', which is used as the phonetic for the simplified form 担. 旦旦 dan4dan4 means 'daily', but I do not think that is actually the intention. Probably it is a phonetic spelling to indicate that this is not really a Dan-Dan dish but something new being given that name. So, “Dan-Dan” Bean Curd / Sprouts.
Ma Paw Tou Fu 麻婆豆腐 ma2po2 dou4fu3 is bean curd with a sauce of hot peppers and Szechwan peppercorn, as kind of explained by the Mapo Tofu Wikipedia page (and McCawley E3a.8). The name appears to literally mean 'Pock-marked Grandma's Bean Curd' and names along those lines are seen on menus.
豆 dou4 'bean' is the same in 豆芽 dou4ya2 'bean sprout' and 豆腐 dou4fu3 'bean curd'. But it is also a kind of ritual vessel. Here is a picture of one. That is what the character is a drawing of, as can be seen on the Character Etymology site. It is also possible to see these true character etymologies using Wieger's Chinese Characters, one of those great Dover reprints, or Karlgren's more authoritative Grammata Serica Recensa. These each have ways of looking up characters, of course. As an alternative when starting online, GSR can be indexed by looking at the kGSR field of the Unihan entry and Wieger by using Gaoling, which is Wieger online without the pictures. (STEDT is developing a GSRE — as in Electronica — which is supposed to have a public interface someday.)
The base meaning of 腐 fu3 is 'rotten'. 婆 po2 is 'old woman; grandmother'. This latter character sometimes occurs with other phonetic parts. Chineselanguage.org's CCDICT has comprehensive character indices. Its 婆 page gives 㜑 along with a couple others. (It also has tantalizing non-public links to Hanyu Dazidian 漢語大字典 and Zhongwen Dacidian 中文大辭典, very large dictionaries of each of the types.)
The English Wikipedia explanation of the dish's name is that an unnamed woman with leprosy lived outside Chengdu and prepared this wonderful dish from her meager provisions and gained fame when everyone loved it. It notes the potential confusion between the characters for 'leprous' and 'numb', along with the odd phrase "Pork-Marked Old man-Lady." The article has some commentary inserted at the bottom like disconnected footnotes suggesting that she was pock-marked rather than leprous. The two characters are 麻 U+9EBB and 痲 U+75F2. The former means 'hemp; flax' and the latter 'leprosy'. The latter uses the former as the phonetic part together with radical 104 疒 chuan2 'sickness', but the two parts to not lend themselves to combining easily, so the result is like an overlay. From the histories of 麻 and 痲, it can also be seen that the hemp drying in the 广 yan3 'barn' did not originally look like 林 lin2 'forest' (it is 𣏟 pai4 'fibers' — Windows users can get this extended character to display by installing
sursung.ttf, the Chinese Extended Font in the Office 2003 Proofing Tools), the phonetic part of 痳 lin2 'gonorrhea'. Dictionaries seem to spread various other senses, such as 'numb' and 'pock-marked' between the two. Cannabinoids can be anesthetics; pock marks look somewhat like hemp seeds (both are 麻子 ma2zi0); hemp and flax are variegated; leprosy is characterized by numbness; it is also a skin condition. The confusion is furthered or eliminated, depending on how you look at it, by using 麻 as the simplified form for 痲. In any case, it seems that 'numbing' and 'pock-marked' are both plausible. 麻 is also the ma in 麻黄 ma2huang2 'yellow hemp' ephedra, which filled up inboxes for a time with its weight loss spam; 麻將 ma2jiang4 'spotted general' mahjongg (per AHD: general is a piece in Chinese Chess; other dictionaries claim "a trademark" and "sparrow" — this FAQ allows the story to be pieced together: the Chinese name is 麻雀 ma2que4 'sparrow'; when it was introduced to America in 1920 it was trademarked as “Mah-Jongg”; that name has spread even back to China, where a somewhat plausible character was chosen — I've gone with 'spotted' because it fits so nicely with pockmarked); and even 麻薩諸塞 ma2sa4zhu1sai1 Massachusetts (e.g. this State document). Again, in factoid form:
☛ The mah in Mah Paw (Mapo) Bean Curd is in even moderate size English dictionaries.
The somewhat longer Chinese Wikipedia page gives a story with more specific origins. In the first year of the Tongzhi Emperor (同治帝 tong2zhi4 di4) of the Qing dynasty (1862), in a northern suburb of Chengdu, Wanfu Bridge (万福桥 wan4fu4 qiao2), was a restaurant owner named Senfu Chen (陈森富 chen2 sen1fu4) whose wife's maiden name was Liu (刘 liu2). Mrs. Chen's face was pock-marked, so people called her “Pock-marked Grandma Chen.” She invented a way of cooking bean curd, called “Pock-marked Grandma Chen's Bean Curd.” So they renamed their restaurant “Pock-marked Grandma Chen's Bean Curd Restaurant” (陈麻婆豆腐店 chen2 ma2po2 dou4fu3 dian4). The restaurant in question even has a web page, giving its story in Chinese, English and Japanese and showing its line of ready-made food products. Note that it uses the rarer 㜑 po2 mentioned above. Its history gives a few more details. Mr. Chen is here named Chunfu (春富 chun1fu4), he dies early and his wife takes over, and the original name of the restaurant is “Chen's Thriving Restaurant” (陈兴盛饭铺 chen2 xing1sheng4 fan4pu4). The restaurant succeeds thanks to travelers over the newly widened bridge. Porters would pay for their meals with cooking oil. There is even a poem, but I am not up to translating poetry right now. Similar versions of the story are given on English language travel sites for Chengdu; for instance, Cuisines in Chengdu (check out the animation in the banner), where it says the restaurant was established in 1842. This bilingual book has a chapter “How Chinese Dishes Were Named” (online here) with much the same story, except that now it is the Happiness (福 fu4) Bridge instead of Innumerable Happiness 万福 wan4fu4; the Chinese version (not online that I can find) adds that this was during the Tongzhi era. The Aug. 24, 1980 diary entry in Letters from China has Ms. Chen needing to feed hungry soldiers with only doufu to work with.
Longer still is the Japanese Wikipedia page. Interestingly, the majority of its history section is devoted to its introduction into Japan by Chen Kenmin (陳建民), the father of Szechwan food in Japan, who is known to American fans of Iron Chef as the father of Chen Kenichi (陳建一), the Iron Chef Chinese. Note that the surname Chen 陳 is the same as the original restaurant proprietor; I assume this is a coincidence, no specific association seems to be mentioned.
Szechwan peppercorn is one of the main spices in Mapo Tofu. Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages has a comprehensive one for it. It is worth noting that it is unrelated to either hot pepper or black pepper and that though the English name for one of its varieties is anise pepper it is also unrelated to star anise, another important Chinese spice (the other three in five spice powder are cinnamon, clove and fennel). In Chinese, it is 椒 jiao1 or more fully 山椒 shan1jiao1 'mountain pepper'. Szechwan peppercorn causes a numbing sensation, so its taste is known as 麻 ma2 'numbing'. The hot taste of hot peppers is 辣 la4. So a typical Szechwan taste when both are used is 麻辣 ma2la4. 麻辣豆腐 ma2la4 dou4fu3 is therefore the general name for tofu spiced this way, and so applicable to 麻婆豆腐 ma2po2 dou4fu3. For example, here is a page with a recipe for a vegetarian "mapo doufu" that the author calls "mala doufu". Likewise, this cookbook writes 麻辣豆腐 ma2la4 dou4fu3 for its Spicy Bean Curd dish; this one for its Peppery Hot Bean Curd, noting the distinction between peppery and hot and mentioning “Pockmarked Woman's Bean Curd.” This bilingual cookbook writes 麻婆豆腐 ma2po2 dou4fu3 for its Spicy Szechuan Bean Curd, even though it is a vegetarian variation. Even if it is only a coincidence and Mrs. Chen really was pock marked, I imagine that the similarity would reinforce the suitability of the Mapo name.
Just 麻豆腐 ma2 dou4fu3 is what is left after making tofu, perhaps 'flaxen bean curd', that is, okara (おから). Here is a Japanese page showing a Chinese dish made from it. Okara patties are my wife's favorite from the veggie burger food group, perhaps because she made tofu from scratch back in the day.
The tofu at Mary Chung's comes from Chang Shing Tofu Inc., which is on Rogers St. about half way between the Kendall Square and Lechmere T stops, right at the edge of where the old light industrial East Cambridge is being supplanted by biotech lab / office buildings. (Building one of them required digging a foundation in a toxic waste site from an old coal tar plant. The smell made it almost impossible to work in that area for more than a year.) It is run by Albert Dao, who moved here in the early 80s after a career in the Vietnamese Air Force. The company's trucks can be spotted driving around town, from which one can tell that the name of the company is actually 長興豆品公司 chang2xing1 dou4pin3 gong1si1 'Chang Shing Bean Products Inc.', since they also make things like soy milk. I think I remember reading that they sell the okara as feed for livestock up in Vermont.
Finally, the name of the restaurant is 鍾園川菜館 zhong1 yuan2chuan1 cai4guan3. 園 yuan2 'garden' is common in restaurant names and 川 chuan1 'river' is the second character in 四川 si4chuan1 'Szechwan' and can be used as an abbreviation (for example, 川椒 chuan1jiao1 means 'Szechwan peppercorn'). So, 'Chung Garden - Szechwan Restaurant'. The Mei Wah page points out that Yuan-Chuan could be a Chinese given name. But no, it isn't in this case. We just asked. It's not like Chinese is a secret.
(I'll also try to clean up the two Wikipedia entries I discussed above when I get a chance.)