Food is often the first way Westerners encounter Chinese culture. Who doesn't like Chinese food? Food is such an important part of culture here in China, in fact, that Mandarin is chock-full of cool and unusual food-related terms. Here are five interesting ones:
1. "nǐ chī le mǎ (你吃了吗?)" – "did you eat?"
A simple question, to be sure, but it's not usually meant to be answered literally. In fact, it's more of an extended greeting, a bit like asking "how are you doing?" or "how's it going?"
Much like the English response of "good" or "fine", you wouldn't generally provide an accurate response; instead simply saying, "chī le" (I've eaten). It's an example of how important eating is in Chinese culture and daily life.
和英文里的"good"或"fine"很像的是，你不必给出非常具体的回答，而可以就简单地说"吃了chī le" (I've eaten)。这个例子证明了"吃"在中国文化和日常生活里是非常重要的。
When I first arrived in China, I had assumed that "你好吗?" was the standard follow up to "hello," and while it is still used, it sounds fairly dated. Something like "你吃了吗" or "你怎么样" would be much more common these days.
2."chī cù (吃醋)" – "to eat vinegar."
This one has a sweet origin story from the Tang Dynasty.
"Emperor Taizong decided to reward his chancellor Fang Xuanling by giving him a choice of beautiful women from his concubines.
Fang's wife was angry and jealous, however, and refused to accept a new woman to share her husband's bed.
The emperor himself was annoyed and gave Fang's wife a choice: either accept new, young lovers for her husband – or drink a cup of poisoned wine and end her life.
She chose to drink poison – which turned out to be vinegar in the emperor's test of her courage and devotion to her husband.
Hence, eating vinegar has come to signify a woman's jealousy."
3. "chī dòufu (吃豆腐)" – "to eat tofu."
Informally, 吃豆腐 means something like "to flirt" or "to tease".
4. "chī kǔ (吃苦)" – "to eat bitterness."
You actually run into this phrase pretty often in Mainland China, and it's quite commonly used among both younger and older folks.
As the literal meaning suggests, 吃苦 means "to endure hardship" or "suffer for a specific purpose."
It's a phrase that is really at the core of Chinese society and values, and the ability to "eat bitterness" has gotten the Chinese people through five millennia of bumps in the cultural road.
5. "kāixīn guǒ (开心果)" – "happy fruit" or "happy nut."
This is the standard term for pistachio, but also refers to a person who's a source of fun.
The nut gets its name from the smile-like appearance of a cracked pistachio shell, but apparently the taste is so good that the term has come to be applied to anyone that lights up a room or improves the moods of those around them.