I’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.