Chinese American food (con)fusion

What does the word “Chinese food” signify to you? Sesame chicken, crab rangoon, and that dirty and shabby corner restaurant where you order those late night hang-over munchies? Well…that’s not that kind of food I’m talking about.

Every Chinese takes great pride in our food and the Chinese food culture is as rich as our heritage. There are 8 major regional cuisines in China and hundreds and hundreds of dishes within each cuisine. (crab rangoon and fortune cookies are not included!) It’s not surprising to find a vast menu consisting of hundreds of dishes in a street fast food stand. Our culture revolves so much around food that there’s an old Chinese saying that goes: “民以食为天,” (roughly translates to “People see food as high as the heaven”). In fact, in the old Beijing, instead of asking “how are you?” neighbors will greet each other by asking “have you eaten?”

Chinese food is so diverse that it can overwhelm the first timers. But what seems to intimidate the diners even more (aside from the pig intestines, read bean ice cream and durian candy), is the names.

You ask: Why can’t “Yuxiang pork” just be called “thin pork slices, carrots, and pepper stir fried in a spicy, sweet and sour sauce?

There are a few ways Chinese dishes are translated into English. Unfortunately, the translated name either lose its flavor or makes zero sense to non Chinese-speaking diners. Worse yet, are the translations that are just plain. wrong.

1. Onomonopia

Aka: 捞面–>Lo mein; 馄饨–> Won ton; 麻婆豆腐–> Mapo tofu.

Too bad for someone who doesn’t Chinese, these names simply wouldn’t make any literal sense.

2. Direct translation

Aka: 火锅–> hot pot; 春卷–> Spring rolls; 锅贴–> pot sticker; 酸辣汤–> hot and sour soup (Well, except it really should be “sour and hot soup)

3. Only translate ingredients or cooking method (aka: a horrible way to translate Chinese dishes)

佛跳墙–> Steamed abalone with shark fin and fish maw

佛跳墙, in Chinese, means “buddha jumps over the wall.” This Chinese delicacy is known for its rich flavor, the variety of ingredients and long cooking time, so delicious that even the vegetarian monks will be lured out of their temples for this dish. Get it?

百年好合–> red bean and lily bulb

百年好合is a proverb, often used at weddings. 合is a pun here; it means lily bulb as well as “unit” or “be together.” 百年means a hundred years. It’s just a delightful dessert with a sweet message.

蚂蚁上树–> sautéed vermicelli with spicy minced pork

Apparently, the dish got its name from a classic Chinese drama from the Yuan Dynasty called “the Injustice to Dou E.” Dou E’s husband was poor and never had much money for food. The pauper could only afford to mince some pork with cheap vermicelli for his sick in-law, who had a poor vision and mistook the minced pork for ants. Thus the dish: “ants climb up the tree.”

Even Google suggests, when you type "Chinese dish names," that "Chinese dish names puzzle foreigners."

The list for mistranslatted dishes can go on and on…But why wouldn’t the Chinese settle for simpler dish names? The short answer is that no one says pork meatballs can’t be called “lion’s head,” thin noodles can’t be called “dragon’s whiskers” or chicken feet can’t be called “phoenix’s claws.” We can always use a bit more imagination when it comes to food, right?

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1 comment
  1. Susannah said:

    Fascinating!

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