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The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters [Paperback]

by James D. McCawley
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2004 0226555925 978-0226555928 1
Lauded by Calvin Trillin as a man who "does not have to make to with translations like 'Shredded Three Kinds' in Chinese restaurants," in The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters, James D. McCawley offers everyone a guide to deciphering the mysteries of Chinese menus and the opportunity to enjoy new eating experiences. An accessible primer as well as a handy reference, this book shows how Chinese characters are written and referred to, both in script and in type. McCawley provides a guide to pronunciation and includes helpful exercises so users can practice ordering. His novel system of arranging the extensive glossary-which ranges from basics such as "rice" and "fish" to exotica like "Buddha Jumps Wall"-enables even the beginner to find characters quickly and surely. He also includes the nonstandard forms of characters that often turn up on menus.

With this guide in hand, English speakers hold the key to a world of tantalizing-and otherwise unavailable-Chinese dishes.

Frequently Bought Together

The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters + Eating Out in China: A Traveler's Resource (EZChinesey Guides) + Dim Sum: A Pocket Guide
Price for all three: $31.76

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“Unlike some of the rest of us, McCawley can enter a Chinese restaurant secure in the knowledge that his digestion will not be impaired by the frustration of watching Chinese customers enjoy some succulent marvel whose name the management has not bothered to translate. . . . McCawley does not spend half the meal staring at his neighbor’s bean curd with that particularly ugly combination of greed and envy so familiar to—well, to some of the rest of us. . . . McCawley endeavors to free the non-Chinese-speaking eater forever from the wretched constriction of the English menu.”

Calvin Trillin, New Yorker
(Calvin Trillin New Yorker)

Language Notes

Text: English, Chinese --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (May 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226555925
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226555928
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #678,046 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars insight into Chinese menus November 16, 2001
Format:Hardcover
This is a practical introduction to reading Chinese menus. McCawley explains the structure of typical Chinese menus, a variety of culinary terms, and even the conventions for writing prices while taking the reader through several real menus. Additional sample menus, including handwritten menus with printed equivalents, are provided as examples. The book includes a substantial Chinese character dictionary focussing on words likely to be used in menus, using an indexing system that non-specialists will likely find relatively easy to use. My only criticism is that pronounciations are given in Mandarin, with Cantonese only occasionally provided. In spite of the recent influx of Mandarin speakers, the staff of Chinese restaurants in North America are still likely to speak Cantonese.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent system for reading Chinese menus July 19, 2000
Format:Hardcover
To really eat well in good Chinese restaurants, you need to be able to understand the Chinese-language menu: many dishes aren't included on the English menu, and many dishes are described vaguely in English, but precisely in Chinese.
Understanding the Chinese menu presents two great challenges: 1) looking up characters in an ordinary Chinese-English dictionary is very hard; 2) words have special meanings in a cooking context.
McCawley's Guide is a great help on both counts. His indexing scheme works directly off the appearance of the character. Conventional dictionaries rely on the character's 'radical' -- which is often not obvious and hard to recognize -- and how it is written. The definitions here are strictly geared to cooking and eating, and often include the names of dishes (not just ingredients or cooking methods), so you know exactly what is on the menu.
Still, you can't count on understanding a full menu quickly enough to stave off hunger -- a good idea to take one home for study if you can.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An essential title for any Asian-loving foodie April 14, 2006
Format:Paperback
In the early 80s, I consumed all of Calvin Trillin's books about food; who cared that he also wrote about politics?. If you have navigated to this book and *haven't* read Trillin's Tummy Trilogy by now, you'd better rush to get yourself a copy... it's the funniest food writing I've ever encountered.

Anyway, in Third Helpings, Trillin had a marvelous essay called "Divining the Mysteries of the East," about a college professor who provided his Linguistics students with a pamphlet -- which grew into a book -- that helped them decipher the menus in Chinese restaurants. As Trillin said, "McCawley has never been reduced to carrying in his wallet a note that says in Mandarin, 'Please bring me some of what the man at the next table is having.'" [This made me angry that I majored in Linguistics at Brandeis instead of going to the University of Chicago; my professor may have been a protege of Noam Chomsky, but I never even got a matzo ball from him.]

Several months after reading Trillin's book, I found a copy of the Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters in an airport bookstore. I snatched up a copy. (Good thing, too, because I never again saw the book on a shelf.) I've cherished this book for twenty years, and I cheered when I saw it was back in print. Let me see if I can explain why.

Unlike some of the reviewers here, I do not know any dialect of Chinese. I don't particularly want to; I just want to chow down on wonderful Chinese food.

There are few authentic restaurants, however, that do a great job of translating the menu. Other than expecting that I'll love any item about which the waiter says curtly, "You no like" (for the record, that deep fried pork stomach was excellent)... well, I'm left to figure it out on my own.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eating in Chinese November 16, 1997
Format:Hardcover
When I was living in Taiwan this book was a lifesaver. I was teaching at a small university near Taipei in the early 80's. The only source of food was from the tiny restaurants that surrounded the side gate of the university. But to order I had to read the menus in Chinese! Luckily, I had brought McCawley's book with me, and was saved from starvation.
The book has similar salutory value in American Chinese restaurants.
Peter Cole
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Try it August 30, 2001
Format:Hardcover
Disclaimer: Jim McCawley [...]was a dear friend of mine, a great dinner companion and chooser of restaurants off the beaten track, and the advisor for the Linguistics dissertation I never wrote.
I'm sorry this book is out of print, but glad to see what a used copy costs. Jim was a genius, passionate about language and food. If you've ever wondered what those characters on the Chinese menu mean, this is your Rosetta Stone. If you take this book seriously, you'll be able to order off the menu the Chinese customers get, not the skimpy English one.
And if there's any justice in the world, this book will be reprinted someday.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wee kanji November 1, 2004
Format:Paperback
This book is an excellent idea: just enough background to understand and read the Chinese characters you're likely to encounter in restaurants. My only carp is that many of them are reproduced in such a small size in the main text that it's hard to see the details and thus impossible to effectively memorize them. A long glossary toward the back of the book makes up for this shortcoming to some extent by displaying the characters in a bigger size, but it's still an annoyance.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars I love this book. Good for people who want to understand Chinese...
I've bought this book twice over the past 20 years and love it.
It begins with a great little introduction to Chinese characters and how they work and in doing so answers... Read more
Published on February 8, 2011 by Peter Huston
3.0 out of 5 stars ? Decent book
I am a little surprised at the number of glowing reviews for this book. I admit that it is a reasonable introduction/discussion of the Chinese characters used for Chinese food... Read more
Published on January 27, 2011 by ascneider
5.0 out of 5 stars An EXCELLENT book
This was one of the very first books I bought about Chinese writing after I discovered an interest in trying to decipher menus in Chinese. Read more
Published on November 24, 2010 by C. J. Thompson
1.0 out of 5 stars McCawley's revenge
James McCawley was the most arrogant and closed minded person I ever met or ate with at table. This book has a several massive flaws. Read more
Published on November 21, 2010 by JJ Hantsch
4.0 out of 5 stars While it may look like Greek to you, this in really Chinese
Many a time I have eaten in a Chinese restaurant and been totally "closed out" of the posted menu specials because I am illiterate in Chinese. Read more
Published on November 27, 2009 by L. WILLIAM
3.0 out of 5 stars Is it all Chinese to you?
An excellent introduction to basic Chinese food characters! After memorizing the first three exercises, Chinese menus become alive as you can easily recognize many main... Read more
Published on July 20, 2008 by Vincent P. Aitro
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and fun intro to Chinese characters through chinese food
I really enjoyed this little book. It has the most comprehensive chinese character food dictionary I've ever come across and it has a very engagingly written introduction. Read more
Published on March 11, 2008 by Graham S. Bauerle
1.0 out of 5 stars You may have fun if you are already fluent in Chinese
I am not. The book is very well written (in the first 7 pages that I managed to read) but the print quality is poor to the point of unreadable. Read more
Published on July 31, 2007 by Alex
3.0 out of 5 stars The Eater's Guide
It is an interesting introduction to Chinese dishes but I was a bit disappointed because it uses old caracters, not the simlpified ones used in China. Read more
Published on July 31, 2007 by Szendile
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book, wish I read this when I was younger!
This was a great book for someone that wants to know restaurant Chinese. Although I can read & write Chinese, I still found it enjoyable.
Published on August 19, 2005 by Stephen C. Callender
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