Red Bean Paste, by Any Other Name, Would Taste as Sweet

As a followup to making Beijing more foreigner-friendly for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has published a book to provide restaurants with standardized English translations for over 2,000 dishes. While the publication, titled Enjoy Culinary Delights: A Chinese Menu in English, should clear up some confusion, it will diminish the entertainment value of menus in China. Gone will be “red burned lion head,” which becomes “braised pork ball in brown sauce,” and “chicken without sex life” gives way to “spring chicken.” Other substitutions include “shrimp cooked in rice wine” for “drunken shrimp,” “ground pork with green soya noodles” for “ants climbing the tree,” and “stir fried prawns and chicken” for “gambolling dragon and praying phoenix.” These last two aren’t mistranslations, just examples of poetic Chinese names whose meanings aren’t immediately obvious to foreign readers. (Maybe restaurants should just keep these literal translations and follow up with an explanation.) But others, maybe the best ones, come from a less-than-stellar grasp of English, such as the menu item from the photo in this article, which translates what could be called “sesame seaweed” as “dish of sesame oil connected through one’s female relatives.” Of course, if “seaweed” doesn’t sound good to you, the second name might be more appealing.

I don’t remember any specific examples of funny menu items from our time in Taiwan, but this topic reminds me of a couple of canned drinks that were commonly available in convenience and grocery stores. Both were labeled with unfortunate English names. The first is a sports drink from Japan, called “Pocari Sweat,” and the other is a yellow citrus soda, simply named “P.”

(“No More ‘Chicken without Sex Life’ at Beijing Restaurants,” Xinhua, March 13, 2012; “‘Chicken without Sex’ Becomes ‘Spring Chicken’—State Meddling in China’s Menus,” Worldcrunch, from The Economic Observer, March 29, 2012)

For anyone who’d like to learn more about the unique names of traditional Chinese dishes—and the history and makeup of Chinese characters—I highly recommend Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey through Chinese Culture, Language, and Cuisine, by A. Zee. Using the names of foods, the stories behind them, and the stories behind the individual characters, Zee shows how the paths of culture, language, and cuisine intertwine. It will make your mouth water, and it will make menus come to life.

[top photo: “Pocari Sweat” by Dwaasuy, used under a Creative Commons license; bottom photo: “Eight Treasure Vegetables,” by Yoko Nekonomania, used under a Creative Commons license]