Wednesday, January 23, 2013

May I Repeat Your Order, Please?

By Beth Green

Have you ever ordered something in a restaurant because you thought it sounded good? I know I have. I’ve also ordered dishes just because they sounded strange.

You can find funny-sounding treats in restaurants all over the world. Deep fried candy bars is a conundrum I discovered in Florida—I always think of KFC-style secret recipe breading over a Butterfinger bar and gag a little. Menus in Asia, however, offer meme-worthy meal titles that pique your interest—and, sometimes, put off your palate.

I found reading English-translated restaurant menus in China to be one of the big perks of going out to eat in a “fancy” restaurant (“fancy” often just meaning tablecloths without holes and English-translated menus; you can infer the kind of “not-fancy” restaurants I usually frequented). Chinese dishes are often given names that are meant to be beautiful or auspicious, rather than descriptive of the ingredients and origin of the foodstuff. 

This is why you get menu entries like “Eight Tastes Chicken” (eight is lucky in China), “Ants Climbing a Tree,” “Crossing Bridge Noodles,” and “Crispy Pigeon Hanging Fire.”

Ants Climbing a Tree” or ma yi shang shu () is a popular dish from Sichuan province in the Southwest. It consists of ground pork in a fiery red sauce over thin noodles. I’ve had it with rice noodles and bean noodles. It has its name from the tiny bits of meat that cling to the noodles like insects on a branch.

Crossing Bridge Noodles” or guo qiao mixian (过桥线) is another famous Chinese entree with a strange name, this time from Yunnan province. Yunnan is the southwest-most province in China, abutting Thailand and Myanmar. As in Thailand and other Southeast Asian cultures, rice vermicelli is popular in Yunnan. To make Crossing Bridge Noodles, you start with hot broth, add ingredients (raw ones first, to be cooked by the hot liquid), and finally “cross the bridge” taking vermicelli from another bowl into your soup bowl. When you use chopsticks to do this, the noodles form a little bridge. There’s debate over whether this is really why the dish has this name, but I think this explanation is the most fun.

However, not all dishes have the same name throughout the country, or even from restaurant to restaurant. When I first moved to China, I enjoyed going to a hole-in-the-wall family restaurant that served food from far northern China. The first time I ate there some friends did all the ordering for the group.  When the food arrived, my partner and I were wowed by the restaurant’s lean, tangy sweet and sour pork. Then, a week or so later Dan and I went back by ourselves, armed with a dictionary, and showed the waiter a series of entries: “sweet,” “sour,” and, of course, “pork.” The waiter was patient and eager to help us, but completely baffled as to what we wanted. What on earth was this barbaric sweet and sour pork? We were stumped as well, since we knew we’d eaten exactly that just a week prior. That day we made do with our “point and shoot” method of ordering (akin to throwing a dart at a map and deciding to go there) and were sure to follow up with our friends later.

It turned out, the right way to order sweet and sour pork in that restaurant was to ask the waiter for guo bao rou, or, literally translated, “Pot Enveloped Meat” with “meat” being generally understood as “pork.” Unfortunately, as I found out when we moved towns, only that style of sweet and sour pork can be called that; going to other restaurants and ordering it only garnered me more than the usual amount of quizzical looks from staff.
Igor, bring me some...tofu.

Later, when I lived in Guizhou province, I discovered a tofu dish that I insisted on ordering for the pleasure of saying the name: “Brain Tofu,” dou fu nao (豆腐 ). A specialty of one particular restaurant in the town I lived in, it is a soft-set curd, the consistency of a not-quite-finished flan, resting in watery brine. It’s the color of our “little gray cells” too. Not entirely appetizing to look at, it was however a great fire quencher when paired with Guizhou’s other, spicy, cuisine.

What strange menu items have you found while traveling? 


  1. I love the strange names that you always find in China, Beth. I love the descriptive nature of the names. "Ants climbing a tree" is especially evocative, especially since you described it so clearly.

  2. Beth, you and your recent adventures just keep me in stitches. I read your first paragraph and knew I was in for another great "Beth adventure." Keep em coming!

  3. I giggled all the way through this post, Beth. I once helped a restaurant in la Paz, Bolivia and translated their menu. They had some great translations of their own into English (wish I could remember them!) but I think the Chinese excel in the interesting translations on menus department.

  4. You can't go to a restaurant in China without a camera. This should be law. Take pictures of the food, take pictures of the funny menu items. :) Thanks for the comments!

  5. When I first moved to East Germany, I ordered a dish in a restaurant because of its name - then wished I hadn't. It was called Hackpeter, which means "chopped Peter," and turned out to be a kind of steak tartare. Raw hamburger on toast topped with a raw egg. The name, combined with the appearance, quite took my appetite away. I must have had a horrified look on my face because the waitress smiled and took the food away without another word.