The delightfully named Fuchsia Dunlop, an an East Asian specialist at the BBC World Service who writes about Chinese food (she has a book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper), has a column in the Financial Times about one of the many efforts China has made in preparing for the Olympics:
As the 2008 Olympic Games approached, the Beijing government embarked on a gargantuan task: to provide approved translations of all the names of dishes English-speaking visitors were likely to encounter on restaurant menus. They were keen, the official Chinese news agency said, to avoid “bizarre English translations” such as “chicken without sexual life” (used to describe a young chicken) and “husband and wife’s lung slice” (a Sichuanese street snack). The agency added, with an unusual burst of humour, that “the images they conjured up were not, one could say, appetising”….
Drawing up accurate translations for even a fraction of Chinese dishes would be a daunting endeavour (Sichuan province alone lays claim to 5,000 different dishes). And the language of Chinese cuisine presents particular challenges. Chinese chefs use a vast vocabulary of terms to describe their cooking methods, many of which are untranslatable. Take, for example, liu, which means to pre-cook pieces of food in oil or water and then marry them with a sauce that has been prepared separately: how to describe this succinctly in English? Even a method like stir-frying has many variations, such as basic stir-frying (chao), fast stir-frying over a high flame (bao), and stir-frying in a dry wok (gan bian). When I trained as a chef in Sichuan province, I had to learn a canon of 56 different cooking methods, and that was just the beginning of my apprenticeship in Chinese cuisine. Translating such a richness of culinary technique into menu shorthand is no easy matter.
Moreover, many types of food have no English-language equivalent. Think of “dumpling”, a blanket term used for all kinds of Chinese snacks, from jiao zi (boiled semi-circular dumplings), to shao mai (steamed dumplings shaped like money bags) and bao (steamed dumplings with twirly tops). And how to translate fen, which can mean powder, meal, noodles, or strips of starch jelly? When taking notes in Chinese kitchens, I find myself jotting in Chinese characters simply because there is no other way of recording precisely what I see, smell and taste….
The final result of the Beijing government’s endeavours is a 170-page book entitled Chinese Menu in English Version. Its suggested translations for more than 2,000 dishes represent a solid achievement, and a great leap forward for linguistically challenged Chinese restaurateurs. The two dozen translators have stuck to their guns in holding on to several useful Chinese terms, like jiaozi for boiled dumplings, tangyuan for glutinous riceballs, and shaomai for those money-bag steamed dumplings. They have avoided some notorious foodstuffs (such as dog), but no one could accuse them of sanitising their menu, because they have included challenging dishes such as steamed pig’s brains and sautéed chicken gizzards.
Along the way she mentions dishes I love well, like mapo doufu and dan dan mian (both Sichuanese). And what I wouldn’t give for two dozen steamed dumplings from the Dongmen Jiaozi Wang in Taipei, on which I used to pig out thirty years ago! But that brings me to a quibble: she defines jiaozi as “boiled dumplings,” but they can be prepared several ways; the boiled ones are shui jiao (水餃, “water dumplings”), but the steamed ones I love are zheng jiao (蒸餃). (Thanks, Paul!)