Rather than clutter each post, I have decided to keep a running list of the main food items I talk about, as well as the names of holidays. Each word is given in both characters and pinyin, the Romanized script.

WARNING: Here is where I dork out on Chinese pronunciation. If it bores you, click her to go straight to the glossary. Also, please bear in mind this guide will only give you a rough approximation, so don’t worry if the woman at the checkout counter gives you a weird look. Just ask her to say whatever it is you want to say, and you’ll be speaking Chinese in no time.

And now, a quickie guide to pinyin:

TONES: Mandarin Chinese has four marked tones, plus a neutral tone. Imagine a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is the absolute lowest “note” you can hit and 5 is your squeakiest shriek. Now apply that scale to the tones:

  • First Tone [mā] sounds like you are singing one note, around a 3-4 on the scale.
  • Second Tone [má] is rising, like when you ask a question. It goes from 2 to 3.
  • Third Tone [mǎ] is the low tone, sometimes called a “grumbling” tone. Basically, your Darth Vader voice. 1 on the scale.
  • Fourth Tone [mà] is falling. You know when you stub your toe and you shout, “@##!!*!”? It’s just like that. On the scale, from 5 to 2.

CONSONANTS: There are a few letters that don’t quite match English pronunciation, and others that are easy for us to confuse. Here they are:

  • c sounds like “ts”
  • g is a hard g only
  • q is similar to the “ch” in church
  • x is similar to “sh”
  • z sounds like “dz”

There are also four retroflex consonants. They are pronounced with your tongue on the roof of your mouth. These are tricky, even for many native Chinese speakers, since they only appear in northern dialects. So give them a try, but if you give up, I’ve added the non-scary equivalent in parentheses that will give you a lovely Taiwanese lilt.

  • ch (“ts”) sounds like it looks, and
  • sh (“s”) does too, but
  • zh (“dz”) is a retroflex j, similar to the French j in “bonjour”.
  • r (“r” or “l”)

VOWELS: These are the easy part, really. Only a few to point out:

  • a sounds like it does in “father” in most words, but like the e in “hen” when it’s before an n.
  • i sounds like “ee” as in “wheeee!”
  • iao is “yow”
  • iu is “yo”
  • ü is like the French u in “tu”. Say a normal u while you form a small opening with your lips. It has a whistling sound to it.

OK, that’s it! Let’s learn how to talk about food.

Glossary of Delicious Terms

haw: shānzhā 山楂

haw flakes: shānzhā bǐng 山楂餅

hawthorn skewers: bīngtáng húlu 冰糖葫蘆

Mid-Autumn Festival: Zhōngqiūjié 中秋節

mooncake: yuèbǐng 月餅

saqima: sàqímǎ 薩其馬/薩齊瑪/沙琪瑪

White Rabbit milk candy: Dàbáitù nǎitáng 大白兔奶糖

%d bloggers like this: