Better Than Chinese Takeout

Chinese Characters for Eating Is Heaven

Chinese Characters for Eating Is Heaven

A couple of days ago I asked my Facebook and Twitter friends to tell me about interesting, unusual or weird food jobs. Right away I received two responses. This isn’t a lot admittedly, but I was happy to have heard from both of them. I told you about Rick Barger and his truffle tasting dog. Here’s the other from Valerie Saint-Rossy.

The conversation began: “Regina Schrambling urged me to tell you about a food class I teach.” Little could I guess that Valerie’s food job would be so wonderfully unusual. Ahh, it is so! Valerie’s class description and fuller background is below.

Chinese Characters for Chinese Food Lovers: Introduction to Reading Characters & Ordering From the Chinese Menu

Do you ever wish you could order the same dishes that the Chinese do in a Chinese restaurant, or be able to read the Chinese-only menu? Enhance your experience of Chinese food and learn about Chinese foodways with this introduction to the study of Chinese characters through food vocabulary.

In no other culture is this truer: to learn how to read is to learn how to eat. Why? Because food names in Chinese say so much more. Aspects of Chinese culture enter into even the most common names, so you cannot help but learn about its history, culture, art, and even its economics when you study Chinese food words.

The student learns how to copy and look up characters by analyzing and identify their parts, called radicals (similar to an alphabet). The student will learn approximately 50 characters that appear not only on menus, but also on signs, stores flyers, and packaging. By the end of the class the student will be able to recognize characters and names of dishes on menus. The student will also know how to look any new character using the Chinese character glossary, The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters by James D. McCawley.

I later asked Valerie how she developed this unique food job. What was her background? She explained that her food job passions began in infancy, that several streams intersected. She spent her childhood in Taiwan and India, where “exotic cooking was home cooking for her.

The second stream: since 2002, Valerie has been a freelance book editor, with specialization in cookbooks. It seemed only natural when she undertook a Chinese food project: making an index for the classic 3-volume Chinese cookbook called Pei-Mei’s Chinese Cook Book. (It doesn’t have one).

Over time Valerie’s original idea of teaching herself the Chinese characters for food words, characters, and the names of the dishes she loved grew more sophisticated. “I widened the scope of my food research. In 2004 a long out-of-print Chinese food glossary, (The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters), was republished. I realized that with the book I could teach other people what I had taught myself.”

The third strand: NYC is a Chinese food town, so Valerie approached NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies with the Chinese Characters for Chinese Food Lovers idea and they signed the class up. Moreover, friends and colleagues in NYC would call Valerie all the time: “whatever ingredient of type of restaurant you’re looking for, Valerie can tell you where to find it in New York.” (Valerie’s favorite eateries are all ethnic formica-table joints. She admits that her refrigerator is filled with the unidentifiable. Yet she is petite and weighs 108 lbs! Oh, if only i could say the same.)

To enroll in or find out more about Valerie’s private Chinese Characters for Chinese Food Lovers 12-week class, do contact her at or 718-852-8485.

I love hearing from readers about their food jobs, though like many bloggers, I wish more people would share their experiences. Sometimes just a single idea will provide a spark that will help someone embark on a new path. I heard somebody say, “There is no such thing as a self-made person.” I agree.

Valerie’s lovely story reminds me again that we are interconnected and enriched when we share our food passions and food jobs. Every one of us is a sum of all the help we have received along the way.