There is a Chinese proverb “吃饭皇帝大” (chī fàn huáng dì dà), which literally means “Food is bigger than the emperor”. It shares a similar meaning with the English slang “someone’s bread and butter”, which is “Nothing is more important than eating”.
You can see how essential food is in Chinese life from this notion. It’s undeniable how Chinese people love to eat. Do you know that China has boasted one of the world’s greatest and most varied cuisines? So, it’s not surprising, that the Chinese culture is deeply influenced by “Food”
Therefore, they’ve created many phrases in Chinese language learning related to it…Let’s look through it now!
1.吃土 – chī tǔ
This phrase consists out of 吃 (to eat) and 土 (soil, dust), which literally means “to eat soil” in the Chinese language.
The idea behind the phrase: When someone’s pocket is empty, he has no money to spend on buying food. Consequently, he only can eat soil (which is free) to fill his belly.
Therefore, it actually means “break the bank” or “bankrupted“ in English.
Wǒ chī tǔ le, yīn cǐ wú fǎ fù yuē le.
I am bankrupted, so I can’t hang out with you.
2.吃醋 – chī cù
This phrase breaks down to 吃 (to eat) and 醋 (vinegar), which literally means “eating vinegar”.
The origin story of it can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty era. Taizong, the Emperor decided to give his chancellor Fang Xuanling a choice of “beauties” from his concubines as a reward. However, Fang’s wife was mad and jealous and refused to accept a new woman as an intruder to the intimate relationship between her and her husband. The emperor himself was irritated and told Fang’s wife to choose between accepting a new beloved for her husband or drinking up a glass of toxic wine to end her life. She chose to drink poison, which turned out to be vinegar. The emperor’s just wanted to test her courage and devotion to her husband.
Therefore, “eating vinegar” connotes a woman’s romantic jealousy.
Tā kàn dào nǚ yǒu hé bié de nán rén xiàng tán shèn huān, chī cù le!
When he saw his girlfriend chatting happily with another guy, he was jealous (ate vinegar)
3.吃香 – chī xiāng
This phrase breaks down to 吃 (to eat) and 香 (smelling good [Adj.], or fragrance [N]), which literally means “eat fragrance”.
It essentially means…
… “to be much sought after”
… “to be valued everywhere”
… “to have a great advantage”
tā de wài yǔ néng lì hěn qiáng ，yīn cǐ zài zhǎo gōng zuò shí fēi cháng chī xiāng.
He is fluent in the foreign language(s), therefore, he has a great advantage when applying for jobs.
4.吃豆腐 – chī dòufu
This phrase breaks down to 吃 (to eat) and 豆腐 (tofu), which literally means “to eat tofu”.
The origin of this slang: In ancient China, whenever someone died, the family will prepare food, which is called 豆腐饭 dòufufàn (doufu meal, including tofu) to host friends and relatives. However, some people who were not invited would go to eat the free meals to get adequately fed, even though it is shameful to do so.
Therefore, 吃豆腐饭 means “to take advantage of something”.
It also means sexual harassment, which is “to flirt with someone”, “to tease someone” or “to take advantage of someone” others in an appropriate manner.
Tā de shàng sī cháng chī tā dòu fǔ, suǒ yǐ tā jué dìng lí zhí
Her supervisor sexually harassed her often, so, she decided to resign.
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Interested in more Chinese phrases about food slang? Keep on reading – we still have some more phrases to offer…
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5.炒魷魚 – chǎo yóu yú
This phrase breaks down to 炒 (to stir-fry) and 魷魚 (squid). So, it literally means “fried squid”.
It is said that in the 1950s and 60s, shop assistants in Hong Kong usually lived in the rear portion of the shop, where they had to bring along their own straw mat to sleep on at night. If they were fired by their boss, they would have to take away their mat, which is made of straw, could be readily rolled up. This rolled-up mat (some of them had a cross-shaped design) looked very much like a piece of freshly-fried squid, which rolls up as a result of the cross-shaped cuts made on its back.
So, 炒魷魚 means “be fired”.
Yīn wéi pín fán fàn cuò, tā bèi chǎo yóu yú le.
Because of constantly making mistakes, he was fired.
6.打酱油 – dǎ jiàng yóu
This breaks down to 打 (to get) and 醬油 (soy sauce), which literally means “to get soy sauce”. Usually, it means “it’s none of my business”, like “I am just passing by to buy soy sauce, I don’t care about what happened to you.”.
Duì zhè cì kǎo shì, wǒ kě méi yǒu rèn zhēn fù xí guò, wǒ zhī shì dǎ jiàng yóu de.
I didn’t review the test that much, I don’t care too much about it.
There are still a bunch of interesting phrases related to “Food” in Chinese. We’d love to share more with you. Do you have any suggestions about topics for Chinese phrases that you would like to know more about? Leave a comment or Sign up our free trial to learn Mandarin and download the Chinese App for more Chinese language materials and to learn Mandarin online.