If you, like me, enjoy spicy foods, one of your favorite Chinese dishes is probably 麻婆豆腐 mapo doufu ‘Pock-marked Grandma’s Bean Curd’; if, like me, you enjoy mixing food and etymology, you’ll be as pleased as I was to discover MMcM’s latest entry at Polyglot Vegetarian, which investigates the names of some of his favorite dishes at Mary Chung’s restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It turns out that the ma in mapo doufu is the same character as in 麻將 majiang and 麻雀 maque (literally ‘sparrow’), the Chinese names for mah jongg. Furthermore, the 擔 dan in 擔擔麵 dan dan noodles (another of my favorite spicy dishes) is the same as the dan, written tan in the traditional Wade-Giles transliteration and thus in English, that is defined in the OED as “A Chinese unit of weight equivalent to approximately 110 lb. or 50 kg.” (the more common word for this in English is picul, from Malay). So both of these food-related syllable/words are found in English dictionaries, though with different meanings! That’s just one of the many fun facts to be found in MMcM’s long and thoroughly researched entry (which also goes into the history of the restaurant which invented mapo doufu); I heartily commend it to your attention.


  1. On tangent and speaking of food:
    if I remember correctly you’ve linked in the past to the table of comparative herbs/spices names in various languages.
    I’m planning to cook some lobio this coming weekend and am trying to find English equivalents for Georgian herbs (“tarkhun”, “kindza”, etc).
    Can you point me to the right place?

  2. Tat, you mean this? Looks like those are tarragon and coriander/cilantro.

  3. Thank you so much!

Speak Your Mind