Cooking in Chinese

  • Learning
Spencer Baron, Upper Division Chinese Teacher

We began our food unit, as most language classes must when entering the world of food for the first time, with the acquisition of a large body of vocabulary. As a student, food is often an easily accessible unit; everyone eats food, and it can be fun to talk about one’s favorite food and its flavors. We had many in-class discussions about flavor. In China, life is often articulated in terms of flavor. Each flavor represents an emotional experience; life has its sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty moments.

The discovery of this analogy lead us down a rabbit hole of life experiences. My goal as a teacher is to constantly push students far out of their comfort zone, but to always keep one hand out and keep students from losing confidence in their ability to articulate. When I asked them to describe sweet times on their lives, or bitter times, students didn’t expect that in a unit as timid and unassuming as food. They would be pushed to express their unique perspectives on events in their lives.

Students preparing food for a cooking show assignment

Using activities like this to add spice to what would otherwise be a dry and arduous period of rote memorization, students were able to talk about all sorts of foods and their opinions on them. This included ingredients and measurements of those ingredients.

This was our launching point to sink our teeth into the meat of our food unit: instructions. Instructions in Chinese work differently than in English. In Chinese, we use a particle that doesn’t exist in English to emphasize the acting upon an object, since the imperative doesn’t exist in the same sense a native English speaker may be used to when learning a romance language. Because of this, learning how to give instructions can be a challenge for a native English speaker. The way I inserted this grammar into our unit was through a cooking show project.

Students preparing food for a cooking show assignment

The cooking show is a precarious project to assign. As a teacher, the final product may look great, but if the students are merely memorizing something the teacher has corrected, it is difficult to truly measure growth and see the limits of student understanding. I therefore structured the project to be more focused on writing. Each time I edited student work, I only told them what was wrong, not how to correct it. It was then up to each student to constantly revise their own work with a new understanding. Only after three edits did I reveal any remaining changed that needed to be done.

Their show had to be done in one take, and they came out quite beautifully. Some made elaborate food with many steps, such as soufflé and dumplings from scratch, while others found ways to very specifically craft each step of something as simple as toasting a bagel. Some were very funny, and others looked practically professional, but we all had fun in this unit and gleaned a lot about giving instructions and the beauty of food.

Students preparing food for a cooking show assignment


  • 10th Grade
  • 9th Grade
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Upper Division
  • Upper Grades Program