At last there’s an acceptable, even pretty good, Chinese restaurant in downtown Madison: Fugu, in the space formerly occupied by the misleadingly named Yummy Buffet. (OK, to be fair, it was actually a buffet.) It’s billed as pan-Asian but the management is from Hong Kong, and I’ve done well by sticking to the Chinese portion of the menu. I particularly liked a dish called “cured meat with string beans,” which consisted mostly of very tender, very flavorful, very salty dry-cooked green beans, lightly sauced and studded with little ovals of something like a cross between Hebrew National salami and beef jerky. The waiter told me the meat was pork but wasn’t able to give any further description.
Here’s how the dish was identified on the menu:
I decided to figure out what this actually meant — partly because I liked the dish so much, partly because I was interested to see if I could still use a Chinese dictionary, something I learned to do when I attempted to learn Chinese in high school. I spent every Sunday morning of senior year going to Potomac Chinese School, where I was placed in a group consisting of non-Chinese adults and Chinese-American kids who had gotten kicked out of their regular class. Suboptimal pedagogical environment. And Chinese is really hard. So I didn’t learn more than the rudiments, and I could never manage to say anything without waving my head in sync with the inflections.
I did learn how to look things up in the dictionary, though. Here’s the trick: each character has a kind of “fundamental piece,” usually the simplest element of the character. In the second character above, it’s the little box on the left-hand side. The fundamental pieces are listed in the dictionary in order of strokes; the little box has just three, so you find it on the list of three-stroke fundamental pieces, then you look at the sublist of “characters which are a little box + a five-stroke secondary piece,” and that’s a short enough list to search by eye, finding that 味 is “wei,” which means flavor.
The second character, 四, is one I remembered — it means “four.” But I looked it up anyway, and was rewarded with the compound 四 季, “si ji”, which means “four seasons.”
Now here’s the part where it gets easier than it was when I was in high school — you can Google “wei si ji,” and you quickly find a menu offering “chuan wei si ji dou.” And the character for “dou” is exactly the 豆 you’re looking for. So you’ve got four out of five.
I tried to use Google magic to figure out the first character, but no use — I had to figure out the fundamental piece and look it up by hand. This was the hardest part, but I eventually found out it was “la,” which means “sausage.”
So now we’ve got the whole thing: “la wei si ji dou,” or something like “sausage with four-season flavor and beans.”
But of course this isn’t right — Googling various contiguous chunks of characters, you find that “si ji dou” is just the name of a particular kind of string bean. According to this page,
The reference in the name “si ji dou”, (lit: four season bean) is likely due to the beans’ heartiness, and farmers’ ability to grow it in almost any season.
And “la wei” is the name of the meat: according to a Chinese friend of a friend, “smoked or preserved pork sausage, similar to salami.”
In other words, the Chinese name of the dish is “cured meat with string beans.”
I still say the hour I spent doing this was worth it. You never know when you might need to look something up in the Chinese dictionary, and now my skills are fresh.