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English food words of Chinese origin

| News | December 4, 2015

Where do some words in English language come from? Did you ever imagine that quite a few English words come from Chinese?

English words with Chinese origin usually have different characteristics depending how the words were spread to the West. Despite the increasingly widespread use of Standard Mandarin among Chinese people, English words that are based on Mandarin are relatively few. Many of the Chinese loan words made into the English language as pronounced in the Cantonese (广东话) or Amoy dialect (厦门话) because the early contact between the two cultures happened along the southern Chinese ports of call or through the mostly Cantonese immigrants. In addition many of the Japanese words, such as judo, Shinto or Shoyu, that were adopted into the English language have a Chinese origin.

Perhaps the easiest way for words from another language to enter English is through our stomachs. Examples like pizza, spaghetti and burrito will all readily spring to mind, and perhaps alert our salivary glands. And when it comes to food words, Chinese is no exception.

Here are few English words of food with a Chinese origin.

Bok choy
from Cantonese 白菜, a Chinese cabbage: lit. ‘white vegetable’

Catsup or Ketchup
from Cantonese 蕃茄汁, lit. tomato sauce/juice

colloquial English word for ‘tea’, originally from Cantonese 茶

Chow mein
from Taishanese 炒麵, lit. stir fried noodle, when the first Chinese immigrants, from Taishan came to the United States.

from Chinese Pidgin English chow chow which means food, perhaps based on Cantonese 炒, lit. stir fry (cooking)

Dim sum and Dim sim
from Cantonese 點心, lit. touches the heart

from Hokkien Chinese (闽南话) 人參 jîn-sim, rendered in Mandarin as rén shēn, name of the plant. Some say the word came via Japanese (same kanji), although 人参 now means ‘carrot’ in Japanese; ginseng is 朝鮮人參 (‘Korean carrot’).

Japanese ギョーザ, loan word from Chinese 餃子 (Mandarin: Jiǎo zi), stuffed dumpling. Gyoza in English refers to the fried dumpling style (as opposed to water boiled).

Har gow
from Cantonese 蝦餃, lit. shrimp dumpling

Hoisin (sauce)
from Cantonese 海鮮, lit. seafood

Kumquat or Cumquat
from Cantonese name for tangerines 柑橘

Lo mein
from Cantonese 撈麵, literally scooped noodle

from Cantonese 龍眼, name of the fruit, literally “Dragon’s eye”

from Cantonese 蘆橘, old name of the fruit. Mandarin name is pípā (枇杷)

from Cantonese 荔枝, name of the fruit

Mao-tai or Moutai
from Mandarin 茅台酒 (máotái jiǔ), liquor from Maotai (Guizhou province)

Mu shu (pork)
from Mandarin 木須 (mùxū), lit. wood shredded

Japanese ラーメン, loan word from Chinese 拉麵 (Lamian), lit. pulled noodle. Ramen refers to a particular style flavored to Japanese taste and is somewhat different from Chinese lāmiàn.

Siu mai
from Cantonese 燒賣, pork dumplings, lit. to cook and sell

from Cantonese 小種茶, lit. small kind tea

from the Amoy dialect for tea 茶, which is pronounced “dey”. In Portuguese, Tea is pronounced as Chá (茶), so the earlier traders of Tea are probably the Portuguese.

from Cantonese 豆腐, lit. bean curd

Tung oil
from Cantonese 桐油, oil extracted from nuts of the tong tree, lit. tong tree oil

from Cantonese 鑊, lit. boiler or cauldron

Won ton
from Cantonese 雲吞, lit. ‘cloud swallow’ as a description of its shape

Learn more Chinese words

China Language Centre

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