Satisfy Your Palate: Chinese Vegetable Terms to Make You Hungry

Everyone knows that vegetables are a vital part of a healthy diet. Let’s learn how to say some of our favorites in Chinese.

Vegetables with the character 菜

In Chinese, the word for vegetables is 蔬菜 (shūcài). This 菜 character may be familiar if you’ve learned types of cuisine, as in:

  • 我们吃中国菜吧!
  • (Wǒmen chī zhōngguó cài ba!)
  • Let’s eat Chinese food!
  • 你喜欢吃美国菜吗?
  • (Nǐ xǐhuan chī měiguó cài ma?)
  • Do you like to eat American food?

In fact, 菜 on its own means vegetable, and can be found in the names of several common vegetables, especially leafy greens. Let’s look at some examples.

1. 菠菜 (bōcài) – Spinach

Notice that both characters in 菠菜 have the same radical: 艹. This radical means “grass” and, predictably, is found in 草 (cǎo), which in Chinese means “grass.” Lots of plant Chinese plant names have this radical in them. You may be wondering why the grass radical would be found in 英文 (yīngwén) or 英国 (yīnggúo). That’s because the character 英 originally referred to a plant and was only later used for the name of the language and country.

Example use:

  • 这个三明治有没有菠菜?
  • (Zhège sānmíngzhì yǒu méiyǒu bōcài?)
  • Does this sandwich have spinach?

2. 小白菜 (xiǎobáicài) – Bok choi

Like many Chinese vegetables, bok choi has more than one Chinese name, such as 青菜(qīngcài). You might think that the English name “bok choi” seems similar to báicài, and you’d be right! The English name comes from the Cantonese term, which does not have the 小 in front. (In Mandarin, taking away that 小 makes a different vegetable. More on that later!)

Example use:

  • 服务员,再给我们一份小白菜吧,谢谢。
  • (Fúwùyuán, zài gěi wǒmen yīfèn xiǎobáicài ba, xièxie.)
  • Waiter, get us another plate of bok choi, thanks.

3. 花菜 (huācài) – Cauliflower

This one is easy to learn if already know that 花 means flower. We find “flower” in cauliflower, and 花 in 花菜。

  • 这盘花菜真好吃。
  • (Zhèpán huācài zhēn hǎochī.)
  • This plate of cauliflower is delicious.

Other vegetables with the 艹 radical

4. 西兰花 (xīlánhuā) – Broccoli

The first character here, 西, means “west” on its own. Why would this word have “west” in the name? Because this vegetable was introduced to China from Europe, that is, from the West. Interested in more vegetable words relating to geographic origin? Read on!

Example use:

  • 你比较喜欢西兰花还是花菜?
  • (Nǐ bǐjiao xǐhuan xīlánhuā háishi huācài?)
  • Do you like broccoli or cauliflower more?

5. 莴笋 (wōsǔn) – Celtuce

Here we see two easily confused radicals side-by-side. In 莴 we have 艹, the grass radical. On the other hand, 笋 contains 竹, the bamboo radical. (The radical looks a little different when it’s alone.) You may also know 竹 from 篮, the “basket” part of 篮球 (lánqiú “basketball”).

Example use:

  • 这碗汤里面有莴笋。
  • (Zhèwǎn tāng lǐmian yǒu wōsǔn.)
  • This bowl of soup has celtuce in it.

6. 茄子 (qiézi) – Eggplant

Besides being a delicious vegetable, there are certain circumstances in which 茄子 might be translated into English as “cheese.” How can this be? Once you realize that qiézi and “cheese” sound somewhat similar, it all makes sense: they’re both things you might say while someone takes your picture. Next time you take someone’s picture, you can say “三二一,茄子!”

Example use:

  • 中国的茄子跟西方的茄子不一样。
  • (Zhōngguó de qiézi gēn xīfang de qiézi bù yīyàng.)
  • China’s eggplant is different from Western eggplant.
  • 三二一,茄子!
  • (Sān èr yī, qiézi!)
  • Three two one, cheese!

7. 番茄 (fānqié) / 西红柿 (xīhóngshì) – Tomato

This is a vegetable that has two names that are about equally common, though there are regional preferences. Tomatoes are not native to China, which is indicated both names: 番 on its own means “foreign” and 西, as mentioned above, means “west.”

While we’re here, let’s leave one more note on this one. 番茄酱 (fānqié jiàng) is a word that easily confuses Chinese learners. 番茄 is “tomato” and 酱 is “sauce,” but together they don’t mean “tomato sauce.” 番茄酱 is tomato ketchup!

Example use:

  • 我教你做番茄炒蛋。
  • (Wǒ jiāo nǐ zuò fānqié chǎodàn.)
  • I’ll teach you to make fried tomato and eggs.

8. 洋葱 (yángcōng) – Onion

Once again, we have a name that indicates the geographic origin of the vegetable. There are many types of 葱 which are all generally in the same general category of onions, leeks, etc. The ordinary, common onion is called 洋葱, in which 洋 means “Western.” When this kind of onion arrived in China, it was introduced from Europe.

Example use:

  • 看看菜谱,现在加洋葱吗?
  • (Kànkan càipǔ, xiànzài jiā yángcōng ma?)
  • Look at the recipe. Do we add the onion now?

Vegetables with 瓜

瓜 (guā) is often translated as “melon” in English. This makes sense for words such as 西瓜 (xīguā, “watermelon”) and 哈密瓜 (hāmìguā, “cantaloupe”), but it also appears in a number of vegetables that we wouldn’t normally call “melons” in English. Besides the famously cool 黄瓜 (huángguā, cucumber), here are some examples.

9. 南瓜 (nánguā) – Pumpkin

On its own, 南 means “south.” What’s so southern about these vegetables? They were first cultivated in Central/South America. US visitors to China are sometimes surprised to find pumpkin eaten outside of October and November, but in China this vegetable isn’t associated with any particular season.

Example use:

  • 你要不要吃南瓜?
  • (Nǐ yàobuyào chī nánguā?)
  • Do you want to eat pumpkin?
  • 我会做南瓜灯。
  • (Wǒ huì zuò nánguādēng.)
  • I can make a jack-o-lantern.

10. 苦瓜 (kǔguā) – Bitter melon (or bitter squash, or balsam-pear)

If you’ve never had bitter melon before, it’s probably best to have a small bite before getting yourself a full serving. The 苦 in the name means “bitter” and it really means it. Divisive even among those who grew up eating it, the taste isn’t for everyone. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it! You never know, this could be your new favorite vegetable!

Example use:

  • 你尝过苦瓜吗?
  • (Nǐ chángguo kǔguā ma?)
  • Have you ever tried bitter melon?

Saying – 萝卜白菜,各有所爱

Let’s finish with a popular saying and introduce two more veggies while we’re at it! 萝卜 (luóbo) is “radish” and 白菜 (báicài) is “napa cabbage.” (Note: don’t mix up 白菜 and 小白菜). The saying is:

  • 萝卜白菜,各有所爱
  • (Luóbo báicài, gè yǒu suǒ ài)
  • Whether it’s radish or cabbage, each person has their own preferences.

That is, every person is different and has different tastes. You can use this saying to say that even if someone has different tastes from you, you don’t mind and still accept them.

An Extra Serving

Did you leave room for something other than vegetables? Check out these other articles!