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Understanding the Names of Chinese Dishes

Insider to Chinese menus also suggests that food is not merely something to fill our stomach. It is a reflection of a culture, and this is true in the case of Chinese culture.

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Insider to Chinese Menus Africasiaeuro 005

In Chinese cuisine, the real cultural representation reflects in the names of Chinese dishes.

Names are incorrectly translated

Unfortunately, often the names of these dishes are incorrectly translated into English. Therefore the original meaning gets lost in translation.

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Insider to Chinese Menus Africasiaeuro 004

In Chinese restaurants in Western Europe, a menu already tells it all about each dish.

Why the look is so important

By merely looking at the menu one can roughly know which are the main ingredients, what does the dish taste like, and how it is made (for example, stew or stir-fried).

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Insider to Chinese Menus Africasiaeuro 009

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

Appearance of the dish

Another common naming method derives from the appearance of the dish, namely by finding a comparable object or term.

These names appear usually quite detailed, for example, ‘Liu / chao /pa/bao…’ to distinguish different ways of stir-fry.

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Insider to Chinese Menus Africasiaeuro 012
  • A good deal of imagination is needed. One of the most famous examples in Northern Chinese cuisine is stir-fry potato, tomato, and green pepper.

In Chinese it is called ‘Hong lu deng,’ as ‘red, green light,’ or ‘traffic light.’

Another example is stir-fried mince and ‘fen si’ (cellophane noodles), which in Chinese is ‘ma yi sheng shu,’ whose literal translation in English is ‘ants climbing the trees.’

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Using a metaphor

There is finally another common way of naming dishes, used in China for thousands of years and which is perhaps the one that can represent Chinese culture the most: using a metaphor.

The metaphor can be extracted from a part of the poem to imply an event, a status, blessing or wish.

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A straightforward example is a chicken dish. After cooking, the chicken parts are re-assembled together and placed on the plate with open wings.

This dish’ name is ‘eagle opening up its wings,’ which in Chinese wishes somebody with ambitions to have great future (like an eagle flying high, which can see a more significant part of the world).

It is well-documented in Chinese history that many writers and poets used to write poems according to what they were eating.

Some names they created have survived until today. Looking at those names of the dishes can be great fun.

For example, who could imagine that a dish called ‘a dragon hiding in a jade palace’ is only ‘tofu cooked with dojo loach’?

Now, probably you can understand what I mean when I say that the names of Chinese dishes can be a beautiful representation of Chinese culture.


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