I’ve been shopping. It’s time to replenish the pantry and get the rest of the kitchen as stocked as it can be. I’ve gone to three different supermarkets to find what I need, but not without some difficulties.

Regionalisms often kick my butt. You’d think I’d have my head wrapped around it by now, but unfortunately I can never remember just where on the Mainland it’s ok to call the waitress 小姐 and which place calls a wok 大勺儿. That second one made me look like a complete idiot in Korea a year or so back. I was looking to buy a wok, which I had been taught was a 大勺儿 in Northern regions. Thinking “hey Korea’s in the North”, I went ahead an asked at the local Chinese supermarket. No no, she said, this isn’t a big spoon. It’s a wok (鐵鍋/铁锅). Also, for what it’s worth, the driver (call him 先生, not 司机) of your Taiwanese taxi (计程车, not 出租车) won’t have any clue if you slip up and ask him to take a 大拐 instead of 左转. Then again, no one outside Shanghai would probably understand that anyway.

Today’s big one was looking for a bottle of 老抽 lǎo chōu, the term I had been taught was what you say to mean dark soy sauce. If you haven’t had it, it’s a bit like regular soy sauce but thicker and sweeter. It lacks the overt saltiness of normal soy sauce. You can buy it in the West at most Chinese/Asian grocers under the name of 老抽. In Korea, that was what it was always called (at Chinese markets) and so until today I had no idea that it might possibly have any other names. But to my surprise, after a few hours of traveling around town and not finding it, it looks like I’ve found a place that hasn’t got any bottles of something called 老抽. I finally pulled a clerk over at a high-end grocery store and described it in detail and what it’s used for and how to use it properly in those dishes. He ended up giving me something that was not 老抽. It was more like weak soy sauce with a bunch of corn starch added. It was awful.

So I walked down into the local fresh market. After finding a dry goods shop that had shelves full of bottles in the back, I asked the woman working there if she knew what 老抽 was. “It’s soy sauce! That’s what Hong Kong people call it!” Well, she turned out to be half right.

After some time on Twitter and various Taiwanese forums I heard various suggestions for what 老抽 might be called here. The best, and I say that only because it’s something I saw at the store, was 红酱油, red soy sauce. That makes sense since it’s used more for colouring 红烧 style foods, where traditional soy sauce is more about the flavour. 红酱油 is also used in northeast China, apparently, while 老抽 and 生抽 are dark and light soy sauce respectively, as they’re called in Guangdong and Hong Kong. Singapore has 老抽 as well, it turns out. But, for some reason, it seems like the majority of Taiwanese simply don’t use it in their foods. Being a big fan of Mainland foods and Delta preparations of things (which is the only reason I bought 辣酱油 — a.k.a. worcestershire sauce, a Shanghai favourite), I can’t really let go of the 老抽.

Fortunately a number of high-end grocery stores here have a couple of small bottles of Hong Kong produced 老抽. That will have to do. Getting an authentic bottle of 鎮江香醋 is another matter altogether.

And the wok battle isn’t over either. Just recently I was relaying the 大勺儿 story to a Taiwanese friend, the punchline requiring the listener to know 铁锅 meant wok. The whole story fell flat, met with a blank look, before he asked if I meant 锅子 or 勺子.

All these differences are interesting, but sometimes I wish I could skip it all and just have a simple conversation.

9 responses to “老抽”

  1. I have never come across 大拐 before, but in Changchun it’s 大回 (and the opposite of course is 小回). Those two words seem to be very specific Changchun shibboleths.

  2. Karan says:

    You say that (the last line) but you know you’re having tons of fun figuring out all these regionalisms. :)

    • Kellen says:

      Yeah, I go back and forth honestly. Mostly these days I just wish I could get shit done a little more efficiently. I’d rather be 100% fluent in all relevant dialects and then worry about the neatness of the regionalisms later. Realistic, right?

  3. Andrew says:

    I’m confused by the reference to “wok (鍋貼)” in the second paragraph. Aren’t 鍋貼 potstickers, e.g. fried dumplings? Is this supposed to be 鐵鍋 as you mention in the last paragraph?

  4. pc says:

    This summer I was working in an office in Shanghai after spending the previous 6 months in Harbin. I told my coworker that I was going to run to the 仓买 to get a bandaid for my 玻璃盖儿. My coworker looks at me in askance. “我勒个去, is my Chinese really that bad?” “Your 勒个 what?”

    I then spent the next few minutes explaining what I meant. Turns out I should be going to a 商店 to get a bandaid for my 膝盖 and yes, 坑爹, your Chinese is weird.

    • Kellen says:

      the one i can’t get over is that 飯店/饭店 fandian means hotel and only hotel, where as in my brain it’s totally a restaurant. 餐廳/歺厅 canting, what I should use, to me is only a university or high school cafeteria, and not someplace i’d voluntarily eat. my classmates keep wondering why I go to the hotels so often. 小賣部/小卖部 doesn’t seem so common here either.

    • Movenon says:

      Most Northeasterners I know seem to say 菠萝盖儿 for ‘knee’… is 玻璃盖儿 another Dongbei colloquialism?

      You can hear 菠萝盖 used for ‘knee’ in Cantonese occasionally too, but mostly people say 膝頭哥.

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