Where do the unusual names for Chinese menu items come from?

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June 23 2008 3:04 PM

What's Up With Chinese Menus?

The stories behind "chicken without sexual life" and "bean curd made by a pockmarked woman."

Dumplings
Does this dish have a weird Chinese name?

In preparation for this summer's Olympic Games, the Chinese government has recommended new English translations for more than 2,000 traditional Chinese dishes to appeal to Western tourists. The menu items in question include "bean curd made by a pockmarked woman," "ants climbing a tree," and "chicken without sexual life." Where did these unusual names come from?

Stories of a recipe's creation, its physical appearance, or a description of its ingredients. The same naming conventions are common in Western cuisine; the Chinese simply employ them more dramatically. The difficulties of direct translation contribute to the awkwardness.

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"Bean curd made by a pockmarked woman," a combination of ground pork, tofu, and Sichuan chilies, is named for its legendary origin. In the most colorful version of the tale, a widow was forced to live on the outskirts of Chengdu on account of her dermatologic flaws. One evening, a pair of travelers who were caught in a rainstorm took shelter in her home. The dish she prepared for them was so delicious that her house became a regular stop for travelers to Chengdu. Other versions describe the woman as the wife of a restaurateur or a grandmother with a street-food stand.

"Ants climbing a tree" describes the classic Sichuan dish's appearance—the bits of minced pork clinging to bean thread noodles recall insects moving through a tree's branches. Similarly, a Huaiyang dish called "lion's head" comprises a large pork meatball stewed in a broth with cabbage and other vegetables. The meatball and cabbage appear as a lion's head and mane.

Even when the name of a dish simply describes the ingredients, the language is often much more vivid than a Western gourmand would expect. "Chicken without sexual life" (often translated as the far less awkward "virgin chicken") refers to a young bird weighing between 12 and 20 ounces. The French call it a "poussin;" in English, it's a "spring chicken." (The phrase "She's no spring chicken" appeared in the United States no later than 1906 to describe a woman past her prime.) The Chinese name makes explicit the chicken's raison d'être: It will be slaughtered for meat before it can lay eggs.

In fact, only a few of the 2,000 dishes on the government's translation list would raise a Western eyebrow. And Western fare has its own abstruse names. Hush puppies, or deep-fried cornbread batter, were used either by fisherman, Civil War soldiers, or runaway slaves to quiet barking dogs. In the English dish "toad-in-the-hole," sausages partially submerged in Yorkshire pudding resemble peeking amphibians. When Napoleon defeated the Austro-Hungarian army in Marengo, Italy, in 1800, his famished troops scavenged the town for ingredients. The fruits of their pillaging supposedly composed the original chicken Marengo.

Chinese cuisine does have more of these colorful names, but that may be a result of its focus on traditional dishes. Chinese-restaurant patrons don't need to be told the main ingredients for centuries-old specialties. In contrast, many Western restaurants formulate entirely new recipes, making explicit description more important. Some chic Asian eateries, however, do label modern recipes with pseudo-traditional metaphorical names. The Tung Lok Group, a Singapore-based chain, offers menu items such as "night is in the air" and "pillow talk."

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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