Big Taste, as in “Spicy”

Diced Spicy Chicken chong qing style

Spicy, by roboppo

The other night I was enjoying a simple meal by myself in a dongbei (northeast China) restaurant. I overheard an exchange between two women and the restaurant owner. It went something like this:

> [after ordering]

> Woman: 上次点的菜太淡了,我们要味儿大一点的。 Last time our food was too bland. We want the taste to be “bigger.”

> Server: 好的。 OK.

> [the dishes are served, the women try them]

> Woman: 服务员,我们刚才说过了,我们要味儿大一点的。 Server, we just told you: we want the taste “bigger.”

> Server: 你这个“味儿大”啥意思?是说咸点,还是什么? What do you mean, “bigger?” Saltier, or what?

> Woman: 就是味儿大一点。辣点。 Bigger taste. Spicier.

> Server: 哦,你要辣一点的。我以为“味儿大”的意思就是味道浓一点。 Oh, you wanted it spicier! I thought “big taste” just meant stronger flavor.

> Woman: 不,是辣的意思。 No, it means spicy.

> Server: 那,你本来就应该说“辣点”。 Then you should have just said “spicy” in the first place…

> [The server takes the dish away to make it spicier, grumbling a bit.]

I was intrigued by this exchange for several reasons. First, neither party was from the Shanghai region, so the miscommunication couldn’t be blamed on the north-south divide that you typically see in Shanghai (like the baozi / mantou distinction). Second, the women were using an expression which, although simple, I had never heard either, and I couldn’t find listed in any of the dictionaries in Pleco (I was looking it up while eavesdropping on their conversation). And third, any time groups of Chinese people have trouble communicating, it’s interesting to me for linguistic reasons, as well as somewhat comforting, as a student who has experienced his own fair share of frustrating communication difficulties.

Also, since the word 味儿 can refer to odor as well as taste, in the absence of clear context, a more likely interpretation of 味儿大 is “strong-smelling,” or, quite possibly, “stinky.”

Three Gorges Dam, Yichang, China

Yichang, by DigitalGlobe-Imagery

Anyway, after I finished my meal, I decided to go over and ask the women about the 味儿大 expression they used, where they were from, etc. They were extremely cooperative. It turns out they’re from Yichang (宜昌). I recorded the conversation, edited it down a little, and have included it for your amusement.

味儿大 conversation (MP3, 01:15 606kb)

And the transcript, supplied by my helpful assistant:

> J: 不好意思,打扰一下。

> A: 嗯,说。

> J: 我刚才听到你们在说什么味儿大,我是学语言学的。

> A: 你请坐吧,坐吧。

> J: 谢谢!我想问一下,你们是哪里人啊?

> A: 宜昌的。湖北三峡大坝知道不?

> J: 不知道。

> A: 嗯?!全世界的第二大水利工程,三峡工程。

> J: 噢~,这个我知道的。

> A: 葛洲坝。

> B: 葛洲坝的。

> J: 哦,那你们那儿的说“味儿大”就是说?

> A: “味儿大”我们就说,意思是说,辣一点。

> J: 那“味儿小”呢?

> A, B: 清淡一点。

> J: 可以说“味儿小”是吗?

> A: 对。

> B: 不是说“味儿小”,我们不说“味儿小”,我们就说淡一点儿。

> J: 那味儿不大呢?

> A, B: 就叫清淡啊。

> J: 清淡和辣。

> B: 我们都叫麻辣味儿。

> J: 你们不说辣?

> B: 说麻辣味儿。

> A: 我们那边比较辣一点,都说家常味儿。

> B: 不,家常味儿是普通的。味儿大一点就很辣的。

> A: 不对,因为我们那儿都是吃辣的。

> J: 你们都喜欢吃辣的,是吧?

> A: 对。我们那边接近四川。

> B: 我们就是喜欢吃辣一点儿的麻一点儿的。

> J: 那我知道了。谢谢,打扰你们了。

> A, B: 没有,没有。

That’s one of the things that’s fun about being a foreigner in China: random strangers often don’t mind talking to you, even when you dump annoying linguistic questions on them.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Matt in (CQ) Philly Says: March 15, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Great audio recording! It’s always interesting to hear Chinese people explain their region’s use of the national language. Thanks for this!

  2. Hahaha, this is great John… So the ‘more flavor’ was in reference to the ‘more spicy flavor’ … Imagine the ‘complaints’ in the kitchen…

    “They like the Sichuan style!… come on!! Spicier!!”

    “First you want more sugar, now spicy?! Heavens!”

  3. And one should note that the two of them disagreed about the meaning of 家常味儿, too. One of the things that comforted me in times of Chinese self-doubt was knowing that native speakers sometimes had a hard time of things, too.

  4. Rafa 穆凡 Says: March 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    One of my friends from Sichuan, I noticed that she always eat spicy food in every meal, she said, having one meal that is not spicy, it feels like she didn’t eat at all.

    I loved the recording! you can hear the “n and l” problem when she says:

    “因为我们那儿都是吃辣的” yinwei women na’er dou shi chi na de

    Sometimes they just cannot tell the difference between n and l, even when they speak English. The same friend, used to tell me in English “Don’t forget to lock the door” I wasn’t sure if it was lock or knock…
    She also likes to sing “lobody, lobody but you!” …. haha

  5. I think that this is a slight case of “silly foreigner meets silly/easily confused old women”. Most 老太太’s worldviews don’t include questioning why there’s no 小味儿 to play a perfect compliment to 大味儿. But no one 奶奶 or 阿姨 wants to lose face, so I think they really just started rambling.

    • They actually weren’t that old (despite the raspy voices). In their late 30’s, I’d say.

      I think what you’re calling “silly” is what I referred to as “annoying” in the blog post. Most native speakers don’t enjoy learners’ pointed questions about their usage of their mother tongue (but can tolerate them in small doses).

      In this case, I think they were answering genuinely about the 味儿小 question, but had never really thought about it, so needed a few seconds to go over the question in their minds. In my experience, this is typical.

  6. nats: What’s with all the “silly”-slinging? It didn’t sound to me like the one woman hesitated at all before saying that 味儿小 was “清淡一点”…

    Good stuff, John. It should inspire me to resuscitate Beijing Sounds for another round or two!

    • Cool! This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and the opportunity finally jumped out at me.

      The stuff you do on Beijing Sounds has been an inspiration to me!

  7. Why were you eating at Dong Bei all by yourself? Your wife must think you are such a geek walking around with a recording device and recording random people. But thanks! This gives us a good insight. 中文很厉害! I had met many students in Shanghai though who had made up their own stuff when speaking. I had asked this one student early on in my studies about a phrase that I didn’t understand… she immediately said, “Don’t listen to me I speak my own kind of Chinese.” I thought, Great. Just my luck. Some introvert who speaks her own bizarre Chinese…!

    • Oh, believe me, my wife definitely thinks I’m a geek. For many, many good reasons.

      I try not to “make up my own stuff” most of the time, although occasionally I try out some things on my wife, who is quite witty in Chinese. (Usually she shoots me down.)

  8. Great post, John. As always, I’m a big fan of dialogue.

  9. Chris_Heilong Says: March 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Great post John, its both interesting and educational, I used to make up my own Chinese when I forgot the name of something or simple didnt know what it was called, usually something followed by ‘Ji/Machine) and its funny because 80% of the time I was correct.

  10. Yes.. I am hopeless at translating witticisms and jokes. I know language level is atrocious but I still try to pull something funny out to ease awkward moments.

    One thing I found really interesting during my most recent visit to China (last year) was when I spent the weekend in Moganshan (north of Hangzhou). They obviously have their own dialect but when they werre speaking mandarin, they would use vocab that the other parts of China, which I have visited and can remember clearly enough, don’t use at all in common speach. I can’t really think of anything off the top of my head now.. but I guess it would be like them saying “bicycle” when everyone else in the country (of the places I have visited) just says “bike”… still the same meaning, still the same ideas being expressed AND still the same dialect (ie. putonghua/mandarin).. but just a different vocab set..

    ..yer.. maybe I am a geek too but without a university degree in linguistics to justify being a geek 🙂

  11. […] The meaning of 味儿大, “big taste”, from Shanghai’s big* language blogger, John Pasden […]

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