October 09, 2008

Baked raw oysters

Raw oysters

The most common oyster in Taiwan is the little 蚵仔. (蚵 is written as ô in Taiwanese, and first-tone ke in Mandarin, according to the pinyin input method. The Unihan database, however, lists it as ke2 and he4.) I have not seen any Taiwanese dishes where they are eaten raw. The only oysters that are served raw are the large, foreign-imported oysters. These have a completely different name. They are called shenghao (生蠔). The first character means "raw", as in "raw ginger" (生薑) or "raw fish slices" (生魚片). The second character means oyster, as in "oyster sauce" (蠔油). So, the word "shenghao" seem like a adjective followed by a noun. I checked about ten dictionaries (all at once), and they listed the characters individually, but none of them had shenghao listed as a word, so this would seem to support the categorization of shenghao as adjective-noun. However, I recently noticed that shenghao is used as a single noun.

The first example of this is from a television program where they were talking about harvesting oysters . Shenghao was used to describe them. It's obvious that the oysters are alive when they are caught, so it seems superfluous to use an adjective to describe them as "raw".

The second, better example is from a restaurant menu. Baked oysters were listed as kao shenghao (烤生蠔), which seems to literally mean "baked raw oysters". An internet search confirms this usage is standard. On Google, there are 54,300 results for the search string "烤生蠔" while there are only 7,660 search results for "烤蠔" (with the "raw" character omitted).

So, we have verified that shenghao is used to refer to foreign oysters, even when they are not raw. But what if we want to say "raw oyster"? If a shenghao is not necessarily raw, then don't we need to add a word to make it explicit that we are talking about raw oysters? If we add the word "raw" (shengshenghao), I find only 223 hits; compare that to 805,00 results for shenghao. So, it only accounts for .03% of all usage of the word "oyster", while in English search results, "raw oysters" accounts for (239,00/6,670,000) 3.6% of all usage of "oysters". This seems to indicate the shengshenghao is not a standard usage.

The unsatisfying conclusion: shenghao means "raw oyster" and it also means "oyster". You have to determine its meaning based on context.

And it gets more complex. Foreign oysters are also referred to as muli (牡蠣). When should you use the word "muli"? Perhaps, "muli" is a general term for oysters, which includes shenghao and others? To get started, let's do a search for the different ways of expressing "catch oysters" in Chinese:
"捕牡蠣" 194 results
"捕蠔" 438 results
"捕生蠔" 87 results
"捕蚵" 318 results

At this point, it is getting tedious distinguishing these words, so I leave it as an exercise for the reader. :)

Taiwanese oyster

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home