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food / travel

"Chicken Without Sex" Becomes "Spring Chicken" - State Meddling In China's Menus

Chinese bureaucracy will soon deprive us of one of life's immense pleasures: ordering 'drunken shrimp', 'happy meatballs' or 'chicken without sex' from a menu. These inventive, often poetic translati

Poetic license (Sarah Collings)
Poetic license (Sarah Collings)

The clammy hand of Chinese bureaucracy is once again cracking down on liberty: the freedom of a restaurant to write what it likes on a menu.

Restaurants in China are famous for their original use of English in describing the dishes offered, but if the bureaucrats get their way, the idiosyncratic pleasure of reading their eccentric menus will be just a memory. Dishes will be assigned standard names. Of course, using these normalized names will not be compulsory, but how many restrictions start out in life as "advisory," "proposed," or "suggested" to later become "statutory" or "obligatory"?

The Beijing Municipality Foreign Affairs Office and the "Beijing Speaks Foreign Languages Office" have just publicized a unified translation of Chinese food names. They found time to rename 2158 dishes!

So out goes "Chicken without sex," which will be replaced by "Spring chicken." That's downright Orwellian.

Among the various translations, some are extremely tasty: "Four happy meatballs" sound rather inviting and the "Drunken shrimp" has a certain poetic resonance for something that is just shrimp cooked in rice wine.

You could say the same thing about English translations of Chinese dishes. Most Chinese have never heard of it but "General Tso's Chicken" is particularly popular in America, while Kung Pao Chicken and Chow Mein (fried noodles) are simply Chinglish.

Some names found on Chinese menus sound as if the writer was relying too heavily on a computer translation program. How else could "Fried sole" become "Blow up of flatfish with no result"?

The boundaries of what are considered acceptable ingredients in Chinese cuisine go far beyond those of Western cooking. The private parts of the deer or tiger (politely called the "whip") are a delicacy. And in the spirit of sexual equality, ovaries can be ordered as well.

The naming of Chinese dishes can be very literary and freehand. Mandarin ducks and emeralds can put in an appearance where the English equivalents sound rather pedestrian. My particular favourites are : Ma yi shang shu: "Ants climbing the tree," ground pork with green soya noodles. Close your eyes and imagine your dish is a Chinese painting. You long xi feng: "Gambolling dragon and playing phoenix," stir fried prawns and chicken. There's more than a hint of sex in the name. Fo tiao quiang: "Buddha jumped over the wall," an elaborate potage of ten ingredients including shark fin, so delicious the venerable ascetic monks escape from the monastery to get some.

Read more in E.O. in Chinese.

Photo - Sarah Collings

*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations

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