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The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters Hardcover – Jul 1984

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Product details

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Univ of Chicago Pr (Tx) (July 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226555909
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226555904
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 13.3 x 18.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Product Description


"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 " --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

James D. McCawley (1938-1999) was the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and East Asian Languages at the University of Chicago.
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Orion Beltwear Inc. on 14 Sep 2009
Format: Paperback
Review title says it all really. The book contains some interesting information, but since it only uses traditional characters, it is less useful for people going to PR China.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 19 reviews
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
insight into Chinese menus 16 Nov 2001
By William J. Poser - Published on Amazon.com
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.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Excellent system for reading Chinese menus 20 July 2000
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
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.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
An essential title for any Asian-loving foodie 15 April 2006
By Esther Schindler - Published on Amazon.com
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.

That is, I *was*, until I got my hands on McCawley's book. By the second page, he has taught you to recognize the characters for stir-fry, deep fry, dry roast. Shortly afterwards, you learn that the J-shaped character, ding, means "cube or dice." By page 7 you've learned the characters for celery, beef, fish. And then you begin to put the pieces together.

Within a very short time, you can figure out the basics of any Chinese menu. You can keep going (and, twenty years ago, I got quite a ways through this book, just for the fun of it); but scanning the first ten pages will help you avoid fried food, or figure out what the menu item "shredded three kinds" really has in it. Half the book is given over to a glossary, so you can figure out what the heck THAT item is in the fish column.

You probably won't read The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters all in one sitting. But you'll be really, really glad you have it. And, I assure you, all your foodie friends will be jealous.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Eating in Chinese 17 Nov 1997
By pcole@udel.edu - Published on Amazon.com
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
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Try it 31 Aug 2001
By groundhog - Published on Amazon.com
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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