Can you Understand Dish Names in China?

Or let me try to use a better title: As a foreigner, are you able to understand the English translation of Chinese dishes in China?

To Read English Menu in U.S. is Hard, but Chinese Menus are Harder

The biggest headache for me is to order dishes in U.S. I think I understand English, and can speak some English, until I am presented an English menu. I believe the most effective way to determine whether someone has lived in a foreign country or not is a menu test. The names of vegetables or sauces are the most basic terms in daily life, but can be very hard terms for a language learner (when they learn it out of the daily life context). That is how I feel in U.S. and Australia.

For visitors or expats in China, the situation is completely the same, and even worse. The translation of Chinese dishes does not help too much because by nature, it is not easy to translate the Chinese dishes to English just by direct or word-to-word translation, not to mention the Chinese dish names are not descriptive itself.

The Key Difference in Chinese and English Dish Names

There are key differences between the dish names of Chinese and English. The English names basically list what’s in the dish (the ingredients) and how it was cooked. The challenge of understanding English menus is to understand the name of the limited amount of vegetables, fruits and sauces names.

The Chinese dish names, in contrast, are completely irrelevant from the ingredients. Cooks tend to think of a very short and beautiful name for the dishes. Typical Chinese dish names are only four characters long, and when you read it, it sounds like a short poem. To name or to guess what the name stands for is an interesting game for cooks and diners.

Examples

Here are my favorite examples of Chinese dish names. Guess what it is from the names.

  • Lion Head. Is it the head of lions? No. It is big meat ball cooked in Hangzhou. One of my favorite. Why they name it this way? I have no idea. It is just named hundreds of years ago and people are still using this name.
  • Ants Climbing Trees. This is also a popular dish in China. We order this almost every time we go out. It is also translated as “Sautéed Vermicelli with Spicy Minced Pork”. Did you see the connections? I didn’t.

Xiaojie Wang sent me some other direct translations that is so funny. Here you are:

  • Slobbering chicken. Chinese: 口水鸡 More official translation: Steamed Chicken with Chili Sauce
  • Tiger Dish. Chinese: 老虎菜 English: No idea at all. What is that?
  • beancurd made by a pockmarked woman. Chinese: 麻婆豆腐 English: Mapo Tofu (Stir-Fried Tofu in Hot Sauce)
  • Rolling Donkey. Chinese: 驴打滚. English: Glutinous Rice Rolls with Sweet Bean Flour
  • There are very ridiculous: Chicken without Sexual Life. Chinese: 童子鸡 English: Spring Chicken

These are the traditional dishes with relative common names. In some restaurants, they really tried hard to find new names for old dishes, or their new inventions. That can be even more wired for foreigners.

You see. From the name, you really have no idea about what it is, and some direct or bad translation makes it even hard to understand.

Bad Translations

Even with good and direct translation, it is so hard to guess. Believe me. It is not only for foreigners. I also have hard to understand what it is about. It is not rare that I ask the waiter what a dish really is.

Now many restaurants provide English menus, and the translation is really bad. They did the translation just by characters (not by meanings), and it turned out to be seriously wrong.

For example, “Griddle Cook” is common way to cook a dish, and it can be mistakenly translated to “fuck” if they don’t know English well. Look at this menu, and you will be really surprised by what the dish names are.

screen-interesting.menus.jpg

See? Don’t be surprised to see a translation like this. They really didn’t mean rude – they just want to communicate about what they are going serve you – in a wrong way.

Survey: What is Your Experience?

Reporter Miss. Wang Xiaojie asked me to do a simple survey on my blog for my foreigner readers: What is your experience with Chinese menus? Can you read it? If you can, how did you figure out what it means? If you cannot, what do you think that can help you?

Please post comment directly understand this post. Thanks.

P.S. Xiaojie will collect the response from this post and feature the interesting replies in the next week’s International Herald Leader.

P.S. 2 Why there are so many f*** word in the menu?

There are just 2000-3000 frequently used Chinese words, and there are so many meanings in the world, so every single character means a lot of different things. For example, the Chinese character 干 in the menu means a lot of different things. To name a few:

the trunk of a tree

the main part

capable; competent

[Informal] to do; to work

to fight on

[Literary] to offend

to interfere in

to be involved in

dry; dried

to drain till empty

You can see, there are some. It can also be translated to the f*** word. The menu maker may randomly pick a translation and print it there.

P.S. 3 The blog of International Herald Leader points to this entry on my blog for discussion around the Chinese dish names. Welcome, readers from International Herald Leader.

21 Comments

  1. Funny! Here Chinese Restaurant and some Thai Restaurant use both the direct translations and the meaningful ones, like 宫保鸡丁,Kung Po Chicken (Diced chicken stir-fried with peanuts in hot pepper sauce). Here is one of the typical Chinese dishes menu for locals. http://chinagardenvacom.superpageshosting.com/dinnermenu/

  2. This is a very helpful, Jianshou. It took me years to realise fully that the names of dishes in many restaurants were poetic descriptive of an idea, and only sometimes of the ingredients. Add to that the bad translations (I have never myself been offered “fuck the bullfrog”) and the menu can be almost as hard to use as one in chinese characters alone.

    How to handle a Chinese menu or restaurant with no English menu? By far the best, take a Chinese friend along. Other options: (1) Look for restaurant with picture menus; (2) use your pocket-sized language book menu list or carry your own printed list of dishes you like (most restaurants will then give you their own version of the dish whether or not its on their menu; I used to worry that “they didn’t do that dish”, but it has never worried them, and on one occasion had a 15 minute “discussion” with me pointing at my list and them pointing at their menu); (3) walk around the restaurant and point at dishes you like the look of; (4) point at random in the menu; (5) in cheaper places go to the kitchen and point at the meat and veg behind the counter; (6) sit down, call a Chinese friend on your mobile, tell them what you want and get them to tell the waiter. All are a challenge to the the timid, the introvert, the control-freak or fussy , but I have never eaten a bad meal in 20 business trips.

    Shangahaiist listed this site the other day: http://www.howtoorderchinesefood.com It is great, and will be even more helpful when they have printable pdf’s of different menus. But even now you could choose your selection of dishes at home, cut and paste the characters and print up the list!

  3. This might be a crazy thought. But could it be that the bad translation on the menu is just an off-beat marketing gimmick? I bet some of your readers actually scout for the most outrageous Chinglish when they are in China as some kind of souvenir. After all, what’s wrong with having a good laughter before you eat?

  4. Actually, for me (an American-born and American-raised Chinese person), menus were one of the first things I could read. Growing up, I was very familiar with words for various dishes, because you *have* to be able to talk about Chinese food, when you’re growing up around a lot of Chinese people.

    And a lot of the characters for food are simple characters – meat, vegetables, noodles, rice, etc… (there are exceptions, of course).

    So, after I moved here, and was improving my reading skills, menus were actually something that gave me confidence and helped me to continue learning to read.

  5. Very funny. If only the person preparing the menu know the meaning of Fuck in english. No offence but I think they meant “Deep Fry Spring chicken” and not Fuck a spring chicken !

    Cheers.

  6. Hangzhou?

  7. @kalala, yes, Lion Heads are famous dish from Hangzhou, based on what I heard…

  8. JS please explain to me how on earth will “Griddle Cook” get translated to “fuck”.

  9. Loretta – The Chinese word for “dry” – also colloquieally translates to a ruder term

  10. hahahahhahaaahhahah funny

  11. @loretta, there are just 2000-3000 frequently used Chinese words, and there are so many meanings in the world, so every single character means a lot of different things. For example, the Chinese character 干 in the menu means a lot of different things. To name a few:

    the trunk of a tree

    the main part

    capable; competent

    [Informal] to do; to work

    to fight on

    [Literary] to offend

    to interfere in

    to be involved in

    dry; dried

    to drain till empty

    You can see, there are some. It can also be translated to the f*** word. The menu maker may randomly pick a translation and print it there.

  12. Actually this ambiguity only exists in Simplified Chinese. The character for “dry” in Traditional Chinese is 乾 which does not carry the other meaning.

  13. Here are some English names of chinese dishes. i hope they are helpful.1.各式刺身拼Sashimi Platter 2.锅贴Pot Sticker 3.辣汁脆炸鸡腿Fried Chicken Legs (Spicy Hot) 4.鸡沙律Chicken Salad 5.酥炸大虾Fried Prawns 6.酥炸生豪Fried Oysters 7.酥炸鲜鱿Fried Squid 8.海哲分蹄Smoked Jelly Fish 9.五香牛展Special Beef 10.白云凤爪Chicken Leg 11.琥珀合桃House Special Honey Walnuts 12.脆皮春卷Spring Rolls 13.蜜汁*烧B.B.Q. Pork 汤羹类Soup 1.花胶鲍鱼火鸭丝羹Congee Pike Maw With Roast Duck 2.红烧鸡丝翅Chicken Shark’s Fin Soup 3.竹笙烩生翅Bamboo Shark Fin Soup 4.粟米瑶柱羹Corn with Dry Scallops Soup 5.竹笙海皇羹Bamboo Seafood Soup 6.鸡蓉粟米羹Corn & Chicken Soup 7.酸辣汤Hot & Sour Soup 8.法国海鲜汤French Style Seafood Soup 9.法国杂菜汤French Style Vegetable Soup 10.杂锦云吞汤Combination Won Ton Soup 11.芥菜肉片咸蛋汤Mustard Green Salted Egg Soup 12.火鸭咸蛋芥菜汤Roast Duck Salt Egg / Mustard Green 13.西葫牛肉羹West Lake Beef Soup 14.三丝烩鱼肚Fish Soup 15.蝴蝶海参羹Sea Cucumber Soup 16.四宝豆腐羹Steam Tofu Soup 龙虾蟹类Seafood (Lobster, Shrimp, Crab) 1.法式咖喱局龙虾French Curry Lobster 2.法式芝士牛油局龙虾Cheese Lobster 3.上汤局龙虾Special Style Lobster 4.蒜茸蒸龙虾Garlic Style Lobster 5.豉椒炒肉蟹Crab 6.上汤姜葱局蟹Green Onion Crab 7.椒盐蟹Spicy Salt Crab 8.粉丝咖喱蟹煲Rice Noodle Curry Crab 虾鲜鱿贝类Seafood 1.菜远虾球Shrimp with Tender Green 2.白灼中虾Boil Shrimp 3.点桃虾球Walnut Shrimp 4.油泡虾球Crystal Prawn 5.柠檬虾球Lemon Prawn 6.咕噜虾Sweet & Sour Prawn 7.蒜茸蒸虾Steam Prawn w/ Garlic Sauce 8.四川虾球Szechuan Shrimp 9.豆瓣酱鲜鱿Fresh Squid 10.虾龙糊Shrimp w/ Lobster Sauce 11.韭王象拔蚌Gold Chive Geoduck 12.韭王花枝片Gold Chive Squid 13.椒盐鲜鱿Pepper Salt Fresh Squid 14.豉汁炒三鲜Mixed Seafood w/ Black Bean Sauce 15.马拉盏炒鲜鱿Special Fresh Squid 16.碧绿炒带子Tender Green Scallop 17.双菇鲜带子Mushroom Fresh Scallop 18.豉汁炒大蚬Clam w/ Black Bean Sauce 19.姜葱生豪Oyster w/ Ginger, Green Onion 20.豉汁炒青口Mussel w/ Black Bean Sauce 21.豉汁豆腐蒸带子Tofu Scallop w/ Black Bean Sauce 海鲜鱼类Seafood (Fish) 1.清蒸游水石斑Steam Live Rock Cod 2.清蒸蒜茸带子Steamd Scallop w/ Garlic Sauce 3.豉汁煎局塘虱Catfish w/ Black Bean Sauce 4.清蒸龙利Flounder 5.清蒸海鲈Fomfret 6.蒸金钱片塘虱Steam Catfish 7.辣汁串烧鱼B & Q Fish Stick w/ Hot Sauce 8.西兰炒雪鱼球Pan Fried Snow Fish w/ Green 9.菜远石斑球Tender Green Rock Cod 10.豉汁石斑球Steam Rock Cod w/ Black Bean Sauce 11.油泡石斑球Crystal Rock Cod 12.川味石斑球Szechuan Rock Cod 13.骨香石斑球Fried Rock Cod Bone 14.咕噜石斑球Sweet & Sour Rock Cod 15.鱼腐扒菜胆Yu Fu w/ Vegetable 鸡鸭鸽Poultry 1.脆皮炸子鸡(半)Fried Chicken (Half) 2.红烧石岐项鸽Roast Pigeon 3.豉油皇乳鸽Pigeon w/ Soy Sauce 4.姜葱油淋鸡(半)Green Onion Chicken (Half) 5.北京片皮鸭Peking Duck 6.酸甜明炉烧鸭(半)Roast Duck (Half) 7.柠檬鸡球Lemon Chicken 8.西芹腰果鸡球Vegetable Cashew Chicken 9.咖喱鸡Curry Chicken 10.豉汁炒鸡球Chicken w/ Black Bean Sauce 11.四川炒鸡球Szechuan Chicken 12.菜远鸡球Chicken w/ Tender Green 13.宫保鸡球Kung Pao Chicken 14.豉汁黄毛鸡(半)Chicken w/ Soy Sauce 15.咕噜鸡Sweet & Sour Chicken 16.八珍发菜扒鸭(半)Combination Duck (Half) 17.子罗炒鸡片Ginger & Pineapple Chicken 18.游龙戏凤Chicken, Shrimp, Squid w/ Mixed Vegetable 19.龙凤琵琶豆腐Egg, Chicken, Shrimp, Steam Tofu **牛肉类Meat 1.酸甜咕噜肉Sweet & Sour Pork 2.菜远炒排骨Spareribs w/ Tender Green 3.豉椒排骨Spareribs w/ Black Bean Sauce 4.凉瓜炆排骨Bitty Melon Spareribs 5.京都骨Peking Spareribs 6.椒盐排骨Pepper Salt Spareribs 7.豉椒焖排骨Spareribs w/ Black Bean, Pepper 8.菜远炒牛肉Broccoli Beef 9.凉瓜炒牛肉Bitty Melon Beef 10.黑椒牛仔骨Black Pepper Short Rib 11.椒盐牛仔骨Pepper Salt Short Rib 12.中式牛柳Chinese Style Beef 13.四川牛肉Szechuan Beef 14.干扁牛柳丝String Beef 15.柠檬牛肉Lemon beef 16.麻婆豆腐Mar-Boh Tofu 煲仔类Clay Pot Style 1.北菇海参煲Mushroom Sea Cucumber Duck Feet 2.诸诸滑鸡煲Chicken Clay Pot 3.鸡粒咸鱼茄子煲Salt Fish Chicken Egg Plant Clay Pot 4.粉丝虾米杂菜煲Rice Noodle Vegetables Clay Pot 5.罗白牛腩煲Beef Stew w/ Turnip Clay Pot 6.支竹羊腩煲Dry Tofu Lamb Clay Pot 7.火腩生豪煲Roast Pig Oyster Clay Pot 素菜类Vegetarian 1.豪油冬菇Oyster Sauce Mushroom 2.什笙上素Bamboo Vegetable 3.红烧豆腐Fried Tofu 4.炒素丁Vegetable Roll 5.罗汉腐皮卷Vegetable Egg Roll 6.素咕噜肉Vegetarian Sweet and Sour 7.蒸山水豆腐Steam Tofu 8.鲜菇扒菜胆Mushroom Tender Green 9.炒杂菜Mixed Green Tender 10.清炒芥兰Chinese Green

    Tender 11.盐水菜心Salt Green Tender 12.干扁四季豆String Bean Western Style 13.上汤芥菜胆Mustard Green Tender 炒粉、面、饭Rice Plate 1.龙虾干烧伊面Lobster Teriyaki Noodle 2.上汤龙虾捞面Lobster Noodle 3.杨州炒饭Yang Chow Fried Rice 4.虾仁炒饭Shrimp Fried Rice 5.咸鱼鸡粒炒饭Salted Egg Chicken Fried Rice 6.蕃茄牛肉炒饭Tomato w/ Beef Fried Rice 7.厨师炒饭House Fried Rice 8.生菜丝炒牛肉饭Beef Fried Rice w/ Lettuce 9.招牌炒面House Chow Mein 10.鸡球炒/煎面Chicken Chow Mein 11.蕃茄牛肉炒面Tomato Beef Chow Mein 12.海鲜炒/煎面Seafood Chow Mein 13.虾子姜葱捞面Ginger Green Onion Noodle 14.干烧伊面Teriyaki Noodle 15.鸡丝上汤窝面Chicken Noodle Soup 16.菜远炒牛河Vegetable Beef Chow Fun 17.豉椒排骨炒河Sparerib w/ Black Bean Chow Fun 18.星洲炒米粉Singapore Noodle (Hot Spice) 19.鸳鸯馒头Shanghai Buns (12) 20.上汤水饺Dumpling Soup 21.上汤云吞Won Ton soup 22.丝苗白饭Steam Rice

  14. I’m a colledge student of hzau,I know your name from the newspaper.And your blog is really wonderful!

  15. I was recommended the nation-wide activity which is discussing the formal and appropriate translation of Chinese dishes,by accident,I know about jianshuo blog from newspaper,I show strong interest in the discussion of the translation,you did wonderful job,i think,i support you! I’d like to parcipate in the interesting and meaningful discussion.

  16. The Chinese food can be divided into four styles. They are Beijing style, Cantonese style, Sichuan style, Shanghai style.

    What do you think of Chinese food?

  17. Some years back, while in Toronto,

    I overheard a chinese waiter asking a white guy if he like some “Bean Flower”

    I was amused to find that it was for Dou Hua.

  18. This is so funny. I translated some menus, including the most restigious restaurant Beijing duck restaurant ” quan ju de” and some other menus. This is just hilerioius. So, i know some skills and terms about how to translate chinese to english, as i have been a chef for ten years. Very interesting to read your blog.

  19. It is really interesting to read your blog about the translation of Chinese dishes. Actually what you written in this article is true.That’s why the Chinese govenment set a formal menu for some regular Chinese dishes last year. When this official Chinese dishes was published, it had caused a lot of contradictory comments about it. On the one hand, some do agree that these Chinese dishes should be given such official names to avoid misunderstanding due to irregular translation. While on the other hand, some people do against this menu, they believe that this would limit our mind for creation and innovation, as most restaurants probably would apply innovative dish names for attracting more customers…..

  20. I would like to get a translation of a cantonese dish –Crystal shrimp–into pinying english

  21. Crystal Shrimp can be translated as “Shui Jing Xia Qiu” 水晶虾球

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *