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Nov 5, 2007 04:39 PM

Shibboleths for ordering authentic food

On the DC board, the topic came up of ordering food at Sichuan restaurants, where it's often hard (at least in this area) to convince the waitstaff that you actually want authentic Sichuan-style ma la food.

Someone mentioned that they had Chinese friends who used a phrase in Chinese that means, roughly, "as it should be" to indicate that they wanted food that wasn't toned down for American palates but that didn't just get you the toned-down version with a bunch of peppers thrown on top (which is what I often get when I ask for something "spicy").

Does anyone know what that phrase might be, and/or do folks have suggestions for other useful shibboleths that might convince wait staff to bring out more authentic dishes (of any cuisine) without us linguistically-challenged hounds having to learn a new language for each cuisine?

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  1. Couldn't find that thread. I usually ask for 'zhen1 zheng4 de' (genuine) in Sichuan restaurants outside the province. You can get their chinese menu and if it is all characters ask for recommendations. The best defense is a good server. You can ask even the English challenged where the cook is from and what the best dishes are. If they are unwilling to help you can look at what other people are eating or go elsewhere.

    6 Replies
    1. re: pepper_mil

      Thanks for that phrase; how would I pronounce the numerals (if at all)?

      (In my case, at least, it's not a matter of identifying the best dishes; among other things, thanks to other Chowhounds, I usually know what I should be ordering before I get there. My problem is more with convincing the servers that I want an authentically-flavored/spiced version of the dish.)

      1. re: sweth

        The numbers are an indication of the tone used for pronouncing those phrases. The tones are critically important the meaning of phrases in Mandarin. Unless you know Mandarin, I wouldn't try it--there's a good chance of totally mangling the phrases beyond recognition.

        1. re: raytamsgv

          I'm somewhat familiar with tonal languages, so I think I could get it with some practice. Now that I know those are tone indicators, Google indicates that the tones in question are probably "high, falling, neutral"; is that correct?

          1. re: sweth

            Yes, those would be the correct tones for those phrases. Presumably, you should be able to find out how Pinyin combinations sound like. The toughest thing to pronounce would be "zh". If you use the standard Putonghua pronunciation (i.e retroflex), you'll sound like an expert. The falling tone is a bit tricky. As my Chinese professor would say, the falling tone is almost identical to an American saying, "Oh, sh*t!" The rapidly falling tone used when pronouncing "sh*t" is what you want to use. Good luck!

            1. re: raytamsgv

              Do you mean "oh, shit," full stop, or "oh shit," exclamation? An exclamation point would indicate a rising or actually LOUD and neutral intonation. Periods indicate falling intonation, do they not? So wouldn't your professor's example be "'oh shit.'" and not "'oh shit!'"?

              1. re: John Manzo

                Use the full stop. It is a rapidly falling tone that comes to an abrupt stop.

    2. I can't really vouch for the authenticity of the food compared to normal ordering, but my Thai assistant taught me how to ask for a dish very spicy in Thai.
      Ped maag, kraap (if you're a man - and the "r" is rolled)
      Ped maag, kaa (if you're a woman).

      6 Replies
      1. re: David Carlson

        Actually, I guess I can contribute to my own thread, thanks to some time spent in Bangkok: in my experience, "ped maag" ("very spicy") gets you very spicy, but not necessarily well-balanced flavor; "Thai ped" ("Thai spicy") gets a more balanced but usually still (pleasantly) painfully spicy dish.

        1. re: David Carlson

          For the benefit of those who don't speak Thai allow me to make a suggestion:

          Be sure to aspirate the "p" in "ped," or "pet," as it were.

          It is a "p-h" sound, not a hard "p."

          IMO, it is more helpful/accurate to transliterate the Thai word for "hot" as "phed," or "phet."

          "Ped," or "pet," with an unaspirated "p" is essentially the Thai word for duck (the animal).

          To most accurately transliterate the request for something to be made hot I would instead suggest, "phet maak, khap," for male speakers, and "phet maak, kha," for female speakers. [The "r" sound you refer to is effectively non-existant in everyday/casual speech.]


          1. re: Erik M

            I was debating between including the "h" or not; the problem I've found is that most people not familiar w/ transliterated Thai then want to pronounce the "ph" as an "f", and I figured the unaspirated p would be a better error to make.

            (Also, I've been told that the dropped r is a "city Thai" thing, and that it does still exist out in the boonies in Thailand. But I've never heard it not be dropped, myself.)

            1. re: sweth

              FWIW, my suggestion to transliterate the Thai word for "hot" as "phet," with both an "h" and a "t," was hardly random. It followed from the form that I use for all of my Thai translating and it is based on the RTGS, or Royal Thai General System of Transcription. The RTGS, despite its many imperfections, remains the only form of transcription fully sanctioned by the Thai Government.


              1. re: Erik M

                I don't think I ever said it was random--just that the RTGS aspirated-p is often mispronounced by most English speakers that I know.

            2. re: Erik M

              Thanks for that - I don't speak any Thai other than what my assistant has taught me, and she left Thailand before her teens and is a bit rusty herself...
              That said, every time I've used it, I've been understood - and more to the point, gotten it at pretty much exactly the level of heat I wanted.

          2. I guess you can't buy a Chowhound passport anymore. In the pre-CNET days, Chowhound produced a wallet-sized card that had some variation of "I want the real stuff" in eight different languages. The Chinese version translated (or so we were told ;-)) as "I have a foreign face but a Chinese stomach."

            1 Reply
            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              Googling, I see that this is probably exactly what I want, but all of the links to it are broken. Anyone know what happened to it and/or have one they could scan and share?

            2. At a Korean rest you might say something like jincha (chincha?) hangul umshi (oomshee)
              ( 진짜 한국 음식 ). Some one a little better at romanization can correct my spelling.