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Culture note: the names of Chinese dishes

It is said that food can be a representation of a culture … partly true, because in Chinese cuisine , the real cultural representation is embedded in the names of Chinese dishes . :)) Unfortunately, when these dishes are translated into English, the original words… lost in translation.

In Chinese restaurants here (in UK), normally a menu already tells it all about each dish. Just by looking at the menu, you would know roughly which are the main ingredients, what does the dish taste like, and how it is made (for example, stew or stir-fried).

In contrast, in China, in some restaurants, especially more formal restaurants, those names can be… what is the exact word for this… unexpected ? :) you can be totally lost in the words — I would, and have to ask all the time.

It sounds funny, but the names of the dishes in Chinese can be formed by using different methods.

How are the names of Chinese dishes formed

One of the most common ways, of course, is by using the names of the ingredients in the dish along with the cooking methods (normally quite detailed, for example, “Liu / chao / pa / bao…” to distinguish different ways of stir-fry.), for example, Liu yu pian – stir fry fish pieces, or mu’er ban huang gua — black fungus mix with cucumber salad dish.

Another common naming method is based on the the appearance of the dish, as “what it looks like”, then exaggerate it into another comparable object or term, needless to say, lots of imagination is needed.

One of the most famous examples in Northeast Chinese cuisine is stir-fry potato, tomato and green pepper, in Chinese is normally called Hong lu deng , as “red green light” — “traffic light”; or another one – stir-fry mince and fen si ( cellophane noodles ) in Chinese is called “ma yi shang shu”, literal translation in English is ants climbing the trees . :))

There is finally another common way of naming dishes, which has been used in China for thousands of years and which can represent the culture the most involves using a metaphor.

The metaphor can be extracted from a part of poem to imply an event, a status, blessing or wishes. A very simple example is a chicken dish, after cooked, the chicken parts being re-assembled together and placed on the plate with open wings, it is named as “eagle opens up its wings”, which in Chinese wishes somebody with ambitions to have great future (like eagle flying high, which can see a larger part of the world). :)

Another example, which is very popular in Northeast, it is a mix leaves, cucumbers and reddish dip with soybean paste , but it is named as “big harvest”, referring to many different vegetables on one plate — a harvest time indeed.

It is well-documented in Chinese history that many writers and poets used to write poems or phrases according to what they were eating, some terms had been kept till today, that is where those poetic names come from. So one can even more easily get lost in the words.

Chinese language and the composition of Chinese dishes names

It sounds like “playing around with words and imagination”, this is because Chinese language is composed by each individual character called “Zi”, although each of them has their own general meaning, it is normally combined with others to make up a phrase or words (called “Ci”, a combination of two or more “Zi”) when expressing, in another words, anyone can make up new words.

Of course there are some words being considered as “correct, non-alterable” terms, but, others are more freely combined or used. For example, there are no “pre-made names” (of people) in Chinese, you can make up any name you like according to what meaning you want to choose —- same as the names of these dishes.
The language rules provide many opportunities for people to play around with words, which can be very interesting, but at the same time, it can make food orders quite troublesome.

However, looking at those names of the dishes can be great fun, for example, who can imagine that a dish called “a dragon hiding in a jade palace” is only “tofu cooked with dojo loach?” :))) People are also very sensitive with current affairs, for example, when Bosnian war broke out, stir-fry spinach with black fungus was called “Bo hei zhan zheng” (“bo” refers to “bo cai” – spinach, “hei” refers to hei mu’er — black fungus ) which literally means “Bosnian war”. ha…. a bit crazy.

Now, probably you understand what I mean when I say that the names of the dishes can be representation of Chinese culture ? :))

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