Using English names in Taiwan can be a problem. Restaurant menus might be my favorite example. A lot of Chinese restaurants here feel compelled to offer an English menu. The owners think it gives their restaurant that certain je ne sais quoi. Frankly, I wish they wouldn’t go to the effort.
Food inherently sounds bad in English, even if the translation is good. It is a problem with the language. Britain has contributed to world culture in many ways, but its contribution to world cuisine has been less than stellar, consequently food sounds singularly unappetizing in English. Restaurants in the West know this and put as much of their menu as possible in a foreign language. French and Italian sound delicious and are good choices. Which are you more likely to order calamari or deep-fried squid, escargot or snails, ris de veau or a calf’s pancreas?
Such subtleties are inevitably lost on Taiwanese restaurant owners who think that an English menu gives their restaurant a certain continental charm. Many restaurants provide English translations for the dishes they serve. Even small family run restaurants often have menus running up to three hundred dishes. Developing the English menu is a monumental task that used to frequently fall to the eldest child, who still in school and forced to study English, must be up to the task. Usually they took a very literal approach, thus you could find yourself in a restaurant choosing between the Horse Urine Eggs or the Chicken Blood and Testes in Chafing Dish. I have seen both on Taiwanese menus during my earlier days here. I went with the Horse Urine Eggs. Delightful.
The arrival of Google has really helped with this problem. It is now possible for our hypothetical restaurant owner, or child, to go online and find a reasonable translation for many Chinese dishes. With just a few seconds on Google I was able to create this short English menu for a hypothetical restaurant.
豬血糕 Pig’s Blood Cake
皮蛋 100-Year Old Egg
油豆腐Oily Bean Curd
靈芝金銀鴨血羹 Duck Blood, Mushrooms and Tofu Soup
麵筋百葉 Fried Wheat Gluten Puff and Tofu Skin
家常皮凍 Pork Skin Aspic
鹵水鴨舌 Marinated Duck Tongue
拌爽口海苔 Sea Moss with Sauce
米醋海蜇 Jellyfish in Vinegar
鹵水鵝頭 Marinated Goose Heads
拌雙耳 Tossed Black and White Fungus
紅燒牛蹄筋 Braised Beef Tendon in Brown Sauce
火燎鴨心 Sautéed Duck Hearts
美極掌中寶 Sautéed Chicken Feet in Maggi Sauce
幹鍋雞胗 Griddle Cooked Chicken Gizzards
咕嚕肉 Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat
臘八豆炒臘肉 Sautéed Preserved Pork with Fermented Soy Beans
米粉扣肉 Steamed Sliced Pork Belly with Rice Flour
梅櫻小炒皇 Sautéed Squid with Shredded Pork and Leek
幹豇豆燉豬蹄 Braised Pig’s Feet with Dried Cowpeas
芸豆燜豬尾 Braised Pigtails with French Beans
小炒脆骨 Sautéed Gristle
九轉大腸 Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce
鍋仔藥膳烏雞 Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs
The problem is, despite a sound translation, the dishes sound awful. If you’re unused to Chinese food, I can understand being turned off by the dish itself. Some of the dishes include things that seem inedible; goose heads, tendons, and gristle. Others just seem putrid; jellyfish, fungus, fried wheat gluten, pork skin, duck tongue, chicken’s feet, intestines, gizzards, pig’s feet and tails. But, among these dishes are some of my favorite Chinese foods. I’m not turned off by the dish itself, but I do find the English names off-putting. A 100-Year Old Egg? Why would anyone want to eat something that old? This is probably a nicer translation than Horse Urine Egg, but only marginally. Stinky Tofu is one of my favorite treats (here), but stinky is a horrible adjective for food. I know it is a translation of 臭, but I think the English has a more unpalatable feel.
The names provide almost no description and are merely a statement of what is in the dish. Despite this, somehow these names manage to be shockingly descriptive, in a negative way. Sweet and Sour Pork with Fat, it is the “with Fat” that makes this sound bad in English. In the case of Braised Intestines in Brown Sauce, even if the fact that they are intestines doesn’t bother you, the name is still unappealing. The juxtaposition of intestines with brown sauce leaves much to be desired. It is hard not to imagine intestine’s other brown sauce. Stewed Black-Boned Chicken with Chinese Herbs sounds bad in English. Why does the chicken have black bones? What’s wrong with it?
I wish restauranteurs wouldn’t translate their dishes into English. Chinese is poetic and makes many dishes sound intriguing: 螞蟻上樹 (Ants Climbing a Tree) or 佛跳牆 (Buddha Jumps Over the Wall). I would rather order youtiao than Oil Stick, jiaoyan ruge than Fried Pigeon with Spiced Salt, or mao xue wang (毛血旺) than Two Types Blood and Two Types Innards in Spicy Sauce. If you find yourself faced with a menu that lacks English, do what I did for years, call the server over and randomly point at some dishes. It’s fun. It is like going into a store and buying a mystery box. When you receive the food, then you’ll know what the characters mean. It is a good way to learn Chinese and explore Chinese cuisine.