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I was always wondering, what is the difference between 饭,菜, 食 and 餐 . Basically all mean food. But I know those are sometimes used in a diffetent curcimstances.

What is then the most common word for food 菜 or 食 ?

我吃过四川菜。Also here I have a sentence I've wrote and I am wondering, can I use anything else but 菜?

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IMHO, I would try to learn some more Chinese vocabulary incorporating those 4 individual characters. I often think Chinese characters make more sense in the context of a full sentence or the usual 2-character-length word. Sometimes a single character can be applied in a lot of different ways. The more words you see with those 4 characters, the more understanding you will get, and, eventually, you will just start to grasp their nuances and subtle differences intuitively. Granted with 饭 and even 吃, you might run into some idiom patterns that might not make sense to you right now, depending on yo –  SherMM Mar 3 at 20:20
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4 Answers 4

There are so many subtle differences and I don't think one can summarise these differences in a set of simple rules.

  1. When referring to food in general, 食物 (edit: or 食品) can be used. Note that 食物 is a compound word, which literally means "something (物) to eat (食)". Examples: 食物安全 "food safety", 红十字会正为地震灾民分发食物 "Red Cross is now distributing food to the earthquake survivors". In modern Chinese, the character 食 in 食物 is not a standalone morpheme. It is standalone in classical Chinese, though, and this classical use of the word "食" still remains in a few terms (see "cuisine" below).
  2. When referring to food prepared by an organisation (e.g. a restaurant or a school meal supplier), 食物 (edit: or 食品), 菜, 饭菜 or 饭餐 can be used. However, there are many exceptional cases that are hard to summarise. For instance, on one hand, even rice-based foods are provided by some McDonald's restaurants, one wouldn't use 饭菜 or 饭餐 as an umbrella term for the food offered by the franchise. On the other hand, even if a usual restaurant (fast food shops excluded) does not offer any rice (饭), one may still call its food 饭菜.
  3. When referring to the food prepared by a specific person, it is more customary to use 菜 or 饭. The two words are usually interchangable, but 菜 is used more frequently. Examples: 他做的菜很美味 (the food he made was delicious), 她很会做饭 (she cooks very well).
  4. When referring to catering, since not only food but also drinks are provided in catering services, unless you want to exclude drinks, 饮 (drinks) and 食/餐 (food) are used together to form the compound words 饮食 or 餐饮. The terms 食物, 饭菜 or 饭餐 can also be used, but 饮食 or 餐饮 are more customary and the word "catering" itself should be translated as 饮食 or 餐饮. Again, 食 or 餐 are not standalone morphemes here. Also, note the character orders: you must write 饮食 or 餐饮 but not 食饮 or 饮餐.
  5. When referring to diet, use 饮食 (but not 餐饮). Again, since you not only eat but also drink, 饮 and 食 are not standalone but used together.
  6. When referring to cuisine from a specific region, 菜 is definitely the most customary word for "food" (四川菜、日本菜、韩国菜 etc.). [Edit:] In many circumstances you may also say 菜式 in place of 菜, e.g. both 我喜欢法国菜 and 我喜欢法国菜式 mean "I like French cuisine" [end of edit]. 餐 is also valid when a Western country is mentioned (e.g. both 法国菜 and 法国餐 may refer to French cuisine), but seldom used if you refer to other countries or regions within a country (therefore, 四川菜, not 四川餐). At any rate, if you mean a specific dish, use 菜 (edit: or 菜式) instead of 餐, because 餐 implies a meal. Example: 左边这碟是法国菜, 右边这碟是意大利菜 "the dish on the left is French; the one on the right is Italian".
  7. If you mean cuisine in general (with no specific cultures or cooking styles in mind), the word "cuisine" is 美食 (edit: or 菜式) in Chinese, literally meaning "fabulous food". Example: 我们提供世界各地美食 (edit: or 我们提供世界各地菜式) = "we offer cuisines from around the world". (Here, the character 食 alone means "food", so the usage of 食 is partially classical Chinese. Yet we cannot say 我们提供世界各地食 with the character 美 omitted. So, unlike the case in classical Chinese, the character 食 here is still not a standalone morpheme.)
  8. If you mean meals, use 饭 or 餐. There are various similarities and differences between the two.

    • When referring to breakfast, lunch or dinner, etc., both 饭 or 餐 can be used. E.g. 你吃了早饭没有?and 你吃了早餐没有?(Have you had your breakfast yet?) are perfectly fine questions.
    • 餐 in some occasions is more formal. On a food menu, "breakfast" usually reads 早餐 but not 早饭. Both 餐桌 or 饭桌 mean "dining table", but "table manner" is 餐桌礼仪, not 饭桌礼仪. Also, if the character for "have/eat" and the character for "meal" are used adjacently, the verb to use depends on the character used. For 饭, use 吃饭 or (less frequently) 用饭; for 餐, use 用餐 but not 吃餐.
    • When the time of having meal is unspecified, it is customary to say 饭 instead of 餐. Example: 你吃了饭没有?("Have you had the meal yet?") One may ask 你用过餐没有?for the same purpose, but 用餐 is much more formal than 吃饭 (imagine a butler asking his master the question when the latter is back to his castle).
    • To say one is full, one may say 吃饱饭了 (or simply 吃饱了 or better, 饱了), but never 吃饱餐了.
    • For festival meals, in general the character 餐 is used. Example: 圣诞大餐 = Christmas dinner, 感恩节大餐 = Thanksgiving dinner. In a related note, the sacrament of Holy Communion is 圣餐 in Chinese.

Note that 餐 is also a quantifier for meals, so its use may sometimes confuse non-native speakers. E.g. in 这餐饭是圣诞大餐 (literally "this meal is Christmas dinner"), the first 餐 is a quantifier for the word 饭 (meal), while the second 餐 refers to a meal.

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Great answer to a poor question –  xiaohouzi79 Mar 3 at 4:41
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The question is not that poor. I am sure it's quite confusing for all Chinese learners. The key to this kind of questions is that you should understand the meaning of a character in a word. Just like in English we understand a word in a sentence. For example, itself has a lot of meanings and it's too abstract that people are very unlikely to just say , instead, they say 吃饭(eat something, can be any kind of food) or 米饭(rice) or 要饭(begging). –  Aw Qirui Guo Mar 3 at 15:08
    
Thank you for your effort guys. Great answer! –  user3491 Mar 4 at 16:34
    
I don't think 餐 is a quantifier, we usually say 这顿饭 instead of 这餐饭 –  Jason Apr 20 at 5:07
    
@Jason It depends on which Chinese language you are talking about. 餐 is definitely a valid quantifier in Taiwanese Mandarin and Hong Kong Chinese, but it probably isn't a standard quantifier in MSM (Putonghua). That said, it's not hard to google uses of 餐 as a quantifier in articles written by mainland Chinese. –  user4086 Apr 20 at 8:32
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饭,菜, 食 and 餐 not really all the same

饭 :Rice 菜 :Vegetables 食 (食物) :Food 餐 :Meal

我吃过四川菜 means I ate before 四川 dish/Veg There's 早餐,午餐 and 晚餐 that stand for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

炒饭 : Here it means fried rice

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Let's start with 食. By itself, 食 means "to eat"; it is a verb. But it can be used to refer to "food" as a noun with 食品 or 食物.

餐 means "meal". 早餐 means "breakfast", 午餐 means "lunch", and 晚餐 means "dinner".

Here comes the hard part. The difference between 飯 and 菜 is hard to identify. Really, they both mean "food". There is even a phrase 飯菜 that means "food". I will try to tackle 飯 first.

飯 literally means "rice" (e.g. 米飯), but it can refer to meals. The phrases 早餐, 午餐, and 晚餐 can all be rewritten as 早飯, 午飯, and 晚飯. The difference here is that 餐 in my opinion is more commonly used, and more formal than 飯.

餐 can also be used as 量詞 (a quantifier, if you will). 兩餐飯 means "two meals".

Now, for 菜. 菜 by itself refers to food. 青菜 means "vegetables". 菜 can be used to refer to a cuisine with 菜式. At a restaurant, a menu is referred to with 菜單 or 菜譜 (although 菜單 is more common).

That is all I can think of.

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饭: 1. In a narrow sense, it mean's prepared, ready to eat rice or rice bowl. In some parts of China, it can mean the main course of a meal.

你来煮饭,我来弄几个菜

You cook the rice, I'll come up with some dishes.

  1. In a wide sense, it means meal.

一天三顿饭对于健康很重要。

Three meals a day is important for health.

  1. In a figurative sense, it can mean food in general.

很多穷人没饭吃/很多穷人吃不上饭

Many poor people have nothing to eat/Many poor people can not afford food.

菜: Basically dishes in a meal other than the rice, desert and soup. For example Kong Pao Chiken is 菜

餐: means meal. Its meaning is similar to the second meaning of 饭, but in most of the cases, it is used to construct phrases and words or to be formal in modern Chinese.

For example:

就餐/用餐 dinning/to dine. Compare it with 吃饭(eating/having a meal, to eat/to have a meal)

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