Posted by Fuchsia
on October 10, 2013
I know it’s something of a cliche to giggle at Chinese menu mistranslations, but the menu I came across at lunchtime today was such a spectacular disaster that I had to share it! Here are some of the linguistic catastrophes on offer in a Shanxi restaurant in Beijing:
荞面灌肠 Buckwheat noodles enema [unfortunately the same Chinese characters are used for an enema and some sausagey-type things]
凉拌莜面 Cold you face [here, the dish is cold oaten noodles, but the character for noodle-type foods (mian) is the same as that for face; and clearly they couldn't find oats in the dictionary so they didn't bother to translate and just gave the pinyin transliteration of the character, 'you']
老醋烧带鱼 Vinegar burning octopus [the character shao can be translated both as 'burn' and as 'braise/cook': the translator clearly got confused here. Mysteriously, the main ingredient isn't octopus at all, but hairtail fish.] Continue reading…
Thanks to Cool Culinaria for sending me samples from their new collection of vintage Chinese restaurant menu prints, which date from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s! The originals come from the Harvey Spiller Collection, which is apparently the largest privately-owned Chinese menu collection in the world. They offer a fascinating glimpse not only into the food, but the imagery used to sell Chinese food in America, including ‘chop suey’ fonts and dragons. Two early examples particularly caught my eye. The cover of the Bill of Fare from the Hong Far Low, a restaurant in Boston in the 1930s, displays a black-and-white photographic portrait of a serious-looking man in a traditional Chinese gown with cloth fastenings, who is described as ‘the first man in Boston who made Chop Suey in 1879′. The menu itself is only in English and clearly aimed at American customers, with sections on fried chicken, chicken chop suey, chow mein fried noodles, chop suey, omelets and salads, and a collection of very unChinese-sounding desserts, such as chocolate cake. Continue reading…
Posted by Fuchsia
on May 13, 2013
Over dinner with some Sichuanese chef and restaurateur friends in London, this is what I was told: “The other day a Romanian woman came into my restaurant alone, and ordered several dishes. When she had eaten half the food, she called me over, and complained that one of the dishes was too sweet, and one too salty. Politely, I invited her to have a couple of other dishes to replace them, and sent out two more, complimentary dishes. Then she asked for the bill, and said it was too expensive, and she couldn’t afford it. I pointed out that all the prices were listed clearly on the menu, and she still said she couldn’t pay. Eventually I told her I would call the police – and I did. But when the police came they said there was nothing they could do, even though they agreed she had probably done the same thing at countless other restaurants. So they left, and the woman got away with her free meal.” [NB this is a fine example of the practice known as bawangcan 霸王餐, tyrannical eating, which you can read a little more about here]
The restaurateur, who has been in London for more than a decade, was shocked and amazed by this turn of events. “I really like English culture, and I do think English people deserve the word ‘gentlemen’,” he said, “But you really take human rights too far here. The government needs to be more strict, and less easy about handing out British citizenship and welfare and so on. If you are too soft, you’ll end up like the United States, with everyone carrying guns. People are too lazy here, too, and because of the prevalence of supermarkets and fast-food joints, they are forgetting how to cook. Honestly, I think Great Britain was Great a hundred or two hundred years ago [NB this is exactly when Britain was abusing China in the most ungentlemanly manner], but these days it’s just ‘Britain’”.
Interesting to hear a Chinese immigrant complaining about excessive human rights, and praising colonial-era Britain… and I appreciate that he thought the loss of cooking skills was one of the major causes of the decline of a once-Great country…
Very happy to be in the Chinatown issue of Lucky Peach, which is out now! It’s a fantastic issue, packed with interesting stuff. Londoners can find it in Foyles in Charing Cross Road.
I’m currently in Shanghai, after the end of my first gastronomic tour with WildChina! I spent ten days or so introducing a small group (ten guests) to the amazing diversity of Chinese cuisines. We began in Beijing, where we tried famous Shandong dishes, Beijing folk cookery, Mongolian hotpot and Peking duck, and then flew to Xi’an, where a trip to see the Terracotta Warriors was bookended by slap-up feasts of local specialties. In Chengdu, we sampled xiao chi (‘small eats’), hotpot and many traditional dishes, enjoyed a glorious formal banquet and attended a hands-on cooking class; and in Shanghai and Hangzhou we scoffed fabulous dumplings and many local delicacies. All in all, if you count street snacks, we tried over 300 dishes. Continue reading…
Posted by Fuchsia
on February 28, 2012
This is the best mistranslation on a Chinese menu that I’ve seen in a long time, Gong Bao chicken rendered as ‘Public explosion chicken!’ Whoever came up with this translation confused the first character with another that sounds the same, and substituted another homonym for the second character. Gong Bao chicken is originally 宫保鸡丁 – which literally means ‘Palace Protector chicken cubes’, because it’s named after a former ‘Palace Protector’, or governor-general, of Sichuan Province, Ding Baozhen. Here, they’ve confused one gong (宫 palace) for another gong (公 public), and substituted the bao that means either 1) ‘fast-fry over a high heat’ or 2) explode for the bao that means ‘protect’ (this latter mistake is a common one). It’s from a menu in southern Yunnan.
Anyway, it’s such a great name for a dish that I’m seriously tempted to use it from now on! (although perhaps it would be better suited for the explosively hot ‘chicken with chillies’ (la zi ji 辣子鸡 )）
This is the signboard for a little restaurant/takeaway in the backstreets of Jianshui, in southern Yunnan Province. It says ‘The sisters’ fast food shop’. You might imagine that they’d be selling fried chicken and chips, but ‘fast food’ in this case meant a ravishing selection of dishes freshly made from ingredients they’d bought that morning in the street market just around the corner.
Of course I couldn’t resist stopping by for a quick bite, and ended up with a delicious and healthy bowlful of spicy tofu, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cucumber salad, stir-fried lotus stems,pickled taro stems with a little minced pork (these were stupendous), and rice jelly with Chinese chives, all served with steamed rice. I sat at a table outside in the sun, opposite the small son of one of the sisters, who had just popped back from school in his lunchbreak.
The market itself consisted of a couple of streets where peasant farmers from the surrounding countryside were selling their own produce, gathered that morning: lettuce stems and radishes, spinach and potatoes, garlic stems and peasprouts, mint and garland chrysanthemum leaves… It was a vibrant reminder of what freshness really means (and of the sad un-freshness of much of the produce sold in supermarkets).
Posted by Fuchsia
on December 15, 2011
Gosh, I’m impressed. I’ve had a few really lousy Dongbei (or Northeastern) suppers in London, and until last night had never had a good one. But a friend and I decided to visit Manchurian Legends, a Chinatown newcomer that has won some enthusiastic reviews, and for once it did live up to the hype. We began with homemade ‘mixed chilled vegetable salad’ (家常涼菜), an elegant mix of tofu skin, beanthread noodles, carrot, cucumber, spring onion and coriander, deftly seasoned with chilli oil, vinegar and lashings of garlic; and a couple of perky little fried pastries stuffed with scrambled egg and Chinese chives (韭菜盒子). The potful of sweet potato ‘glass’ noodles with sliced belly pork and pickled mustard greens that followed (酸菜五花肉燉粉條) was delightfully soft and slithery in the mouth, soothing and refreshing at the same time, and we enjoyed another local speciality, thick, lazy ribbons of mung bean pasta on a bed of slivered vegetables, adorned with intensely-flavoured pork strips, chilli and vinegar (東北大拉皮). Continue reading…
Of course, you can get a club sandwich from room service at any international hotel in China, and probably anywhere in the world, but how about this room service menu from a hotel I stayed in in Chengdu? It was wonderfully reassuring to know that I could summon up some diced rabbit in chilli oil or dan dan noodles if the need arose. The only problem was that when the need did arise with the onset of late-night munchies, the kitchen had closed for the evening. It was then that I noticed that the room service was only available until 9pm.
Fortunately, I was able to sneak out of the hotel, where I passed a mobile 烧烤 stall where a man was grilling everything you could think of on bamboo sticks, and then found a whole row of little eateries selling dishes made with goat, a speciality of Jianyang (简阳), a town to the southeast of Chengdu.
The extensive menu at the place I chose included every part of the goat you can think of, made into cold dishes, hot dishes, snacks and nourishing soups. Some of the dishes were versions of mainstream classics such as twice-cooked pork and red-braised pork, but made with goat. Since I was on my own and had eaten a rather large dinner a few hours Continue reading…
The garden of the Master of the Nets
You can read my article about Suzhou cuisine in today’s Financial Times Weekend.
Here are a few photographs from my various trips there: one of my favourite garden, the Garden of the Master of the Nets (网师园)；one of the Wumen Renjia restaurant courtyard, and other of the wonderful Mrs Sha, who runs it; and a couple of food.