Waiter, there is a pullet in my soup!


One of the oldest and richest cuisines in the world has now become blah, thanks to the lingo police.

All right, hands up, those of you who know what a pullet is. Good if you do. Otherwise China’s new state-mandated menu, meant to make your life easier, will have you scratching your heads in utter confusion.

It seems that the Beijing authorities have decided that they have confounded millions of foreign visitors enough, so they have released a proper translation of strange-sounding names of Chinese dishes. What used to be 清蒸童子雞 went from being the whimsical "chicken without sexual life" to the decidedly bland-sounding "steamed pullet", a name that must have taken someone with an equally unchallenged nocturnal social life to come up with. (The pullet is, by the way, a young hen of less than a year old.)

Just imagine all those lively dinner conversations that could have been started by the mere mention of savouring a virgin chicken in China. There does not appear to be much fun in the future of this succulent steamed dish, a favourite among locals. Nor in the future of the 紅燒獅子頭, formerly known as the majestic "red and burnt lion's head".

Now it is laughably lost in translation as "braised pork balls in soy sauce".

Another tasty delight that has been similarly euthanised is the spicy Sichuanese 麻婆豆腐, or "beancurd made by a lady with a pockmarked face".

How many times before have Chinese friends offered their own authentic explanation of why this addictive dish of braised black beans, beancurd and minced meat in spicy chilli sauce is thus named?

Now it is just "mapo tofu", just another queer boggle of sounds to someone who does not know Mandarin.

The locals are not too impressed. A columnist in the China Daily says translating the names "removes the ambiguity and unintended humour" and "takes away the fun and the rich connotation".

"It turns a menu into the equivalent of plain rice, which has the necessary nutrients but is devoid of flavor."

To be fair to the Beijing Tourism Authority, they did have their good intentions towards the hapless non Mandarin-speaking laowais. To cover all their bases, the guide of 2,000 foods and drinks does try to give as much context as possible, dividing the dishes according to ingredients, cooking method, taste and name of a person or a place. So lo and behold! They have come up with the perfect gastronomical euphemism for the Beijing Olympics.

For all foreigners visiting the Chinese capital, ordering in a restaurant will be an endeavour befitting the stamina of any of the athletes they are watching.


First Published: 
November 2008


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
You are not logged in:

dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

[email protected]