June 27, 2014 Chengdu, China
In general, they are called shū (菽), meaning legumes, or peas and beans. Dòu (豆), or dòu zi (豆子), is the general term for bean or pea (though they also say “dòu lèi,” which refers to the crop). That second character, zi (子) means “son” or “seed” or “young,” but it’s often added to single syllable words (all characters are only one syllable) to make it a noun, to distinguish it from its inevitable homonyms. Since there are only 400 possible syllables in the Chinese language, it’s rife with words that sound the same. Take “dòu,” the basic word for bean: written in Pinyin, the Romanticized phonetic language, its pronunciation is fourth tone, indicated by that downward accent mark, meaning that it is pronounced with a falling tone, from the high “so” of the musical scale quickly down to the “do” of the scale – as though you were angry, or saying “No!” to a child reaching toward a hot stove. The tone distinguishes it from many other “dou” words spoken with different tones. But there are also other words pronounced dòu as well. In written Chinese, the words have different characters. (Fortunately, the characters are usually the same in Mandarin, Cantonese, and many dialects.) The character 斗 is also pronounced “dòu,” but it means “fight.” The character 逗, another “dòu,” means “tease.” If you hear “dòuzi,” you know it’s a bean.
Of course the most important one in China is the soybean, huáng dòu (黄豆), which appears in a mnd-boggling array of forms here. Prior to World War II, we Americans imported soybeans. Now we export them to China. Former southern American cotton fields are now planted with soybeans. It’s amazing to me how many uses there are for the beans in China, but in America our main use is of the oil, which Asians as a rule do not consume. Though arguably unhealthy, it is now in nearly every processed food that includes oil. Though vegetarians and natural foods fanatics have embraced tofu in America, most of it consumed is made either by Asians or Asian-Americans. (In Mandarin, tofu is dòu fu, literally, rotten beans.) Soy sauce is the only other serious soy product consumed stateside, unless you count edamame (a Japanese word), which are a special large seeded garden variety. Here in China, you find green immature soybeans, which appear in markets unshelled, as máo dòu (毛豆), or hairy bean, because of the stiff hairs on the pods. Cooked, they’re not much different from boiled peanuts. Shelled, they’re called qīng dòu (青豆), which means green bean (though this green is more at a blue-green). Are you as confused as I am?
The Chinese love what we call green beans as well, and there are many varieties of string beans, snap beans, and pole beans regularly available in the markets here in Chengdu. But they call them dòu jiǎo (豆角), which brings us to yet another confusing term, jiǎo. The word, and character, can mean horn or corner or angle, and I guess a string bean does sorta look like an old fashioned horn. But don’t confuse it with the jiǎo of jiǎozi (饺子), which, as you probably know, means dumpling. Note the different character. (Or, for that matter, with the xiāng jiāo, 香蕉, which means banana — literally, fragrant banana, to distinquish it from plantain.)
I buy green beans and pole beans when I see them, but I rarely buy yard long beans (also known as asparagus beans in English), though I often eat them in restaurants. Though they look just like VERY long green beans, they aren’t even vaguely related (nor are they cooked like green beans). In fact, they are a type of cowpea, Vigna sinensis, which confusingly may be called dòu jiǎo, but is also known as zhǎng jiāng dòu (长豇豆), or long cowpea (the middle character, jiāng, actually means cowpea, but — albeit with a different character — it also means ginger, another staple of the Chinese diet). This cowpea is different from our own blackeyes and southernpeas, Vigna unguiculata, about which (Surpise! Surprise!), Shiu-ying notes, “There is much confusion in botanical and agricultural literature about this species.” I’m dumbfounded that I haven’t found any field peas for sale here in subtropical Sichuan. They are common in SE Asia.
Lord knows there are bins and bins of other beans — hóng dòu, or azuki beans (literally, red beans); lǜ dòu, or mung beans (and, adding to the confusion, this literally means green beans); cán dòu, or fava beans (literally, silkworm beans, but also known as luó hàn dòu, “Rohan” beans, a large variety); dòu shì or black beans (not our turtle beans, but fermented soy beans that are used in innumerable dishes and which are addictingly delicious; shì refers specifically to these beans, but does not mean “black”); cài dòu or kidney beans (literally, food beans, but also known as yún dòu, or cloud beans); and biǎn dòu, or hyacinth beans (literally, flat beans), to name some of the most common. Many are known by other names, as they are in English. French beans, runner beans, or green beans might be called sì jì dòu (literally, four season beans); I’ve heard scarlet runner beans called “bái yún dòu,” though the literal translation is white kidney beans. I’ve seen cannellini in markets, but didn’t think to ask what they call them here, not that I would understand what’s being said to me! I’ve not seen any of the mottled beans I think of as scarlet runners (so named for the color of their flowers, not their beans).
You’re probably thinking, “What a crock!” At this point, I think I’ll go make lunch. It will NOT include beans!