Braised Beancrud

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From Jim Gordon:

My wife and I visited Boston a week ago, and after dian xin at the China Pearl (which is very little changed from 1973-74), we went to the shade across the street to plot our course for touring.  The  photo below is of a sign in the window there:

I don't think we should blame faulty translation software for this one, as we did in the case of the Fried Enema or the Smallpox Switch — it's just a transposition typo, coupled with bad proofreading.  I can tell, because these are two salient characteristics of my own compositional style.


  1. dveej said,

    May 10, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    Wow – people *ACTUALLY* write "dian xin" instead of "dim sum"?
    I mean, I know they're the same characters both in Mandarin and in Cantonese (for those of you who don't know, there ARE some words which are NOT written in the same characters – admittedly they are very few), but in English I don't think anyone says "dian xin".
    Is this a case of my ignorance as to a newly established trend in English usage, or is it a case of rampant toadying to Mandarin-is-better-than-Cantonese-ish-keit?

  2. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    Well, curd and crud are closely connected etymologically. One is formed from the other by metathesis. Cf. brid in Chaucer, for bird.

  3. empty said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 12:34 am

    One is formed from the other by metathesis.

    Each from the other, maybe?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 1:18 am

    It sounds odd to hear people say DIAN3XIN1 (can't get my Times Pinyin to work in this comment box, nor can I do italics here, so I'm stuck with screaming capitals instead of italics and numerals for tones) when they mean DIMSUM. Among Mandarin speakers whom I know, DIAN3XIN1 means roughly "dessert," whereas among people all over the world who enjoy Cantonese DIMSUM as much as I, it means something very different, namely, a seemingly endless succession of single portions of different types of food, many of them served in small steamer baskets brought to your table on a cart from which you can choose what you wish. By the time you've finished eating a dozen or so of these small portions, it usually amounts to a whole meal (at least for me) — certainly not a dessert, and I would even hesitate to call it a "snack." Perhaps the closest thing in Mandarin would be XIAO3CHI1 (lit., "small eat"); in Yiddish, "nosh" comes closer to DIMSUM than does Mandarin DIAN3XIN1.

    Historically, going back as early as the Tang period (618-907), depending on the time and place, 點心 DIAN3XIN1 could mean things as different as appetizers or flatcakes.

    The upshot of all this is that DIMSUM is a unique, distinctive experience, and we should respect it for what it is, not confuse it with DIAN3XIN1.

  5. deadbeef said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 1:35 am

    "Among Mandarin speakers whom I know, DIAN3XIN1 means roughly "dessert," whereas among people all over the world who enjoy Cantonese DIMSUM / DIMSUN as much as I, it means something very different…The upshot of all this is that DIMSUM / DIMSUN is a unique, distinctive experience, and we should respect it for what it is, not confuse it with DIAN3XIN1."

    I think you're being oversensitive here. There are also Mandarin speakers who refer to dimsum as dian3xin1 because the words are the same. My parents, who are from Jiangsu and Guangdong both refer to it as dian3xin when speaking in Mandarin, one of the two languages/dialects they both know (the other is English). I don't think they call it dian3xin1 because they're being culturally insensitive. I think they call it dian3xin1 because Mandarin is a first or second language to both of them (English probably being third) and they find it natural to call it dian3xin1 because, in spite of whatever differences in cultural or culinary connotations you may think apply, they are still the same words.

  6. J.H. said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 2:03 am

    To the above two posters- in my opinion, it really depends on what context you're in. If you happen to walk into someone's home and see them eating a snack, you could say "o, ni zai chi dian xin ma?" ("Oh, you're having a snack?"). On the other hand, if you're making lunch plans, "dian xin" would be more likely to refer to Cantonese "dim sum". Living in Hong Kong, hearing both instances is common, since dimsum is a Hong Kong thing.

  7. J.H. said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    In my experience, though, it's more common to say "yum cha" (飲茶) for the act of going to eat dim sum. This also makes it clear what you're talking about when you're speaking Mandarin, as you can say "yin cha" as a loanphrase from Cantonese.

  8. xyzzyva said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 2:32 am


    If the concept we're talking about is identifiably Cantonese, couldn't we treat this as a spelling pronunciation by Mandarin-speakers like your parents? It does seem odd in a Chinese-language context… but how is this different from, say, a French phrase in English where identifiable words are anglicized?

    I don't think this makes sense—I need sleep.

  9. Adouma said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 2:38 am

    And just to confuse matters further, here in New Zealand, where as far as I can tell the Chinese population speaks about 50/50 Mandarin/Cantonese (but that's just my opinion and I could be totally wrong), everyone says yum cha.

  10. deadbeef said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 2:47 am

    I think it may depend on both/either context and/or the people you know who speak Mandarin. I don't hear my parents say "yin cha" nearly as often as I hear "dian xin". Now they have been living in the U.S. since the 60s, so that may very well have something to do with it. But I don't think they've been making a point by saying "dian xin" and I don't think it's something worth fussing about when somebody calls it "dian xin". Some Mandarin-speaking people say it without thinking twice, and non-Chinese speaking people who know them might just assume that's what Chinese people call it nowadays. I think it's wrong (especially given the audience) to say "I don't know any Mandarin-speaking people who say that" and then prescribe "do not confuse DIMSUM with dian3xin1".

  11. deadbeef said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 3:11 am


    Maybe it's because I need sleep too, but I think you are making sense. I bet my mother pronounces dimsum "dian xin" because she is a native speaker of Mandarin but not Cantonese, and simply pronouncing it "dian xin" comes more natural to her than translating the concept. And it could be that my father, who does speak Cantonese says "dian xin" because my mother says "dian xin" and doesn't speak Cantonese. I suppose this doesn't explain why they don't say "yin cha" which seems to be common judging from the last few posts; it's possible my mother didn't "yum cha" or eat dimsum much when in China and didn't pick up either phrase growing up, in which case "yin cha" might just mean "drink tea" to her. I don't really know for sure; I'm not a native speaker or even fluent in Mandarin and I don't know any Cantonese, and I never asked my parents about this because it was never an issue until I read the comments here a couple of hours ago. The only thing I know for sure is that they're Chinese from China living here since the late 60s and they do in fact say "dian xin".

    Great, now I'm sleepy AND I want dimsum.

  12. SlideSF said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 3:44 am

    Good in combination with Plams of Buddha!

  13. q said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 4:43 am

    Me and my ABC friends, who learned Chinese through our Taiwanese parents who emigrated in the '70s, call it "guan dong dian xin." The girlfriend who's lived in Taiwan all her life (90's and 00's) calls it "yin cha" or "guan shi yin cha." So maybe there's a generaiton gap.

  14. vanya said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 5:24 am

    I think the point is that in English we say Dim Sum – the word has a fixed meaning to English speakers. Saying/writing dian xin when using English is simply pretentious. It's analogous to saying pâte instead of pasta because French is a more prestigious and widely spoken dialect of Latin than Italian is.

  15. Sili said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    in Yiddish, "nosh" comes closer to DIMSUM / DIMSUN

    Sounds much like tapas to me.

  16. language hat said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    Saying/writing dian xin when using English is simply pretentious.

    There's no call for insulting someone who is presumably a friend of our host. Why not make the generous assumption that Jim Gordon writes dian xin because, for reasons unknowable to us (and I can think of many that do not involve pretention), that's what he calls it?

  17. JimG said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    Now I'm sorry I didn't write "Chinese brunch" instead of using the more exact term in my rusty and limited Mandarin. I remember derailing a beginning-Mandarin class ~37 years ago by asking how to translate "dim sum" for a class exercise, which resulted in a discussion between the Beijing-born old prof and his young Taiwanese grad assistant about the cultural translatability of the name and the respective small delights of regional cuisines. I used the Mandarin this time because my message went originally to Prof. Mair and I was trying to be respectful to him. The only Cantonese I know consists of names of food items, and chopsticks, thank-you and happy-new-year. My American-born-Taiwanese acquaintances say dian xin.

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    Victor Mair: [I]n Yiddish, "nosh" comes closer to DIMSUM / DIMSUN than does Mandarin DIAN3XIN1.

    "Nosh" is not Yiddish but Yiddish-influenced American English. Nashn, like the German naschen, is a verb meaning 'nibble' (mainly though not exclusively on sweets).

    Dimsum has many equivalents in other cuisines: Spanish tapas, Levantine meze, Italian spuntini etc.

  19. vanya said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 10:11 am


    Sorry if I came off as insulting. I just wanted to point out that dim sum is perfectly good American English – at least in every major American city with a Chinatown. It's as American as burrito, lasagna, bratwurst or sushi. "Chinese Brunch" would only be confusing to most Americans, who would probably say "you mean dim sum?".

    I understand perfectly well why Taiwanese born Americans might grow up saying "dian xin" but that is not standard American English. If you're not Chinese American saying "dian xin" can seem show-offy – "look how much Chinese I know!" – especially in a Yankee/Irish city like Boston where restraint and personal modesty are supposed to be encouraged.

  20. vanya said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    I should also note, LH, that I realize Jim is using dian xin in a personal note where people may use all sorts of registers that outsiders may not quite grasp. Didn't mean to say that Jim is being pretentious, I was referring to some of the comments above about the acceptability of saying dian xin in English as a general rule.

  21. Mr Punch said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    I live in Boston, where this discussion started, and while I have virtually no Chinese, I'd be very pleased if there were distinct terms for two quite different types of "dim sum" found in local restaurants — one (southern?) consisting largely of various fillings steamed in dough, the other more like tapas.

  22. Terry Collmann said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    Coby Lubliner: "Nosh" is not Yiddish but Yiddish-influenced American English.

    It's BrE as well, and according to the OED it's been in BrE since at least 1873, rather longer than in AmE, though in BrE the word now means "food" generally, rather than snacks or delicacies, and a "nosh-up" has overtones of a cheap and cheerful banquet.

  23. TB said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    I just always find it weird when recipes or menus say "bean curd". "Tofu" is surely English by now? "Bean curd" seems much more likely to cause confusion than "tofu", but maybe I'm just overgeneralizing from my own experience.

  24. Allan L. said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    It's delicious with fired rice.

  25. Peter said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

    Thanks for this conversation – I now know what dim sum means. I'd heard it several times in American media but, since I'm Australian and have only had yum cha, I didn't know what it was.

  26. Nanani said,

    May 11, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    RE: Tofu vs. Beancurd

    Tofu refers to a specific type of beancurd, does it not?
    It's hard to tell from the picture but I'm not sure the item includes the white, flavour-absorbing item that is generic tofu.

  27. J.J.E. said,

    May 12, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    "If you're not Chinese American saying "dian xin" can seem show-offy – "look how much Chinese I know!" – especially in a Yankee/Irish city like Boston where restraint and personal modesty are supposed to be encouraged."

    Of all the arguments for not using the Mandarin pronunciation of 點心, this is the weakest. What is wrong with showing off one's Mandarin skills, or any other abilities for that matter? This is how humans share. Social groups naturally share their skills and even engage in oneupsmanship of all kinds. And, if it one particular type of sharing comes off as uninteresting or pretentious, it will die out. Or it might become popular.

  28. J.H. said,

    May 12, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    […it's possible my mother didn't "yum cha" or eat dimsum much when in China and didn't pick up either phrase growing up, in which case "yin cha" might just mean "drink tea" to her.]

    Just to clarify, it's most likely that she didn't 'yum cha' when she was in China. The word 'yin3' isn't commonly used in Mandarin to mean 'drink'; in day-to-day usage, 'drink tea' would be 'he1 cha3' (喝茶).

  29. vanya said,

    May 12, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    "What is wrong with showing off one's Mandarin skills, or any other abilities for that matter?"

    Nothing is wrong with it as long as you have no interest in making friends or being liked. And to be clear I'm not talking about telling your friends – "You know how to say dim sum in Mandarin? It's dian xin!" That's sharing. I'm talking about the kind of person who would engage in this conversation

    – Hey, Bob! Bunch of us are going for dim sum on Sunday, want to join?
    – You mean dian3 xin1, don't you? Well, I lived in Beijing for two months and that's how it's supposed to be pronounced.
    – Uh, yeah, Bob, whatever.

  30. deadbeef said,

    May 12, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    @J.H. Yes, he1 is the common word used in Mandarin today, and I would guess other dialects as well. I was just saying that for Mandarin-but-not-Cantonese speaking people there may be no particular reason to prefer "yin cha" over "dian xin".

    But perhaps my ideas were way off base. I realized after reading the comments that followed that I had in fact forgotten a major and important detail—my parents actually grew up in Taiwan (moved to avoid civil war). Now it seems to me that "dian xin" being the normal phrase in Taiwan is the best explanation.

    @vanya: But that conversation isn't what happened in it? The way I would summarize it is more like this:

    -Jim Gordon: I went out to dian xin with my wife and friends…
    -dveej: What? DIAN XIN??? Is this some kind of Mandarin is better than Cantonese toadying?!
    -Victor Mair: "dian xin" sounds weird to me. Dim sum is a distinctively Cantonese thing, and "dian xin" means something else to Mandarin speakers.
    -deadbeef: Actually I know Mandarin speakers who say "dian xin" to refer to dimsum. It really shouldn't make you angry.
    (several people) Actually, I hear it called "yum cha." Maybe we should say that instead.
    -vanya: Non-Chinese-Americans shouldn't say "dian xin"; that's pretentious.
    -Jim: Maybe I shouldn't have used that word…
    -vanya: Oh, I didn't mean to insult you Jim. But it's still pretentious.

    Maybe it's because I'm in the "it's OK to say dian xin because maybe the Chinese people you know say call it that" camp, but I don't see any jerk comments from people who say "dian xin" like the one you just made up, nor have I ever heard anybody doing this (and again, just because I've never heard of it doesn't mean it doesn't happen). What I see here is certain people getting worked up about a perceived injustice that hasn't actually been demonstrated. At least that's the injustice I perceived that got me worked up.

  31. Fluxor said,

    May 13, 2010 @ 12:19 am

    Re: yumcha vs. dimsum, it's really a verb vs. a noun. That's how these terms are used in Cantonese. E.g. The Cantonese go to yumcha (飲茶; lit: drink tea) in order to eat dimsum (點心; small portions of food).

    Tea drinking is an integral part of dimsum. Upon being seated, the first thing the waitress asks is what type of tea you'd like. There are also some simple etiquette for the tea. Remove the teapot lid if you like the teapot refilled with hot water. Serve tea to others first and yourself last. When someone fills your teacup, tap twice with your index and middle fingers on the table.

  32. Mandy said,

    May 14, 2010 @ 2:44 am

    deadbeef – I think dian xin and dim sum are really not the same thing, at least not how you defined the terms. I'm a Hong Kong person who have lived in central China. The whole time I was there, I have never heard any Mandarin-speaking locals refer to Cantonese dim sum as dian xin. dian xin means generic desserts 甜点 and cakes 糕饼. If they mean Cantonese dim sum, they would always say "yin cha" or "gang shi or guangdong dian xin" 港式/广东点心. dim sum (often consumed at a specific time of the day) is not *just* about the food, but it is also a unique culinary tradition and experience that is specific to the Canton region, as opposed to the generic dian xin which often means "snack."

  33. K. said,

    May 15, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    I've always found it strange that "beancurd" is the standard translation of 豆腐. As an American in my mid-20's I have never met any English speaker (including those of more advanced generations) for whom "tofu" was not considered the normal term for this food, yet menus both in China and abroad continue to prefer the calque to the transliteration (and yes, I realize that the term came into English via Japanese).

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