Where Chinese Foods Get Their Names

We’ve all eaten dishes of Chinese cuisine with unusual names, or at least seen some of these mysterious foods on the menu. Ever wonder what the story is behind their names? Here are some of the more popular Chinese foods that you might be curious about.

Kung Pao Chicken

This spicy stir-fry is a very popular dish in the West as well as in many parts of China, and it’s a delicious example of peppery Szechuan cuisine. It is reportedly named after Ding Baozhen, who lived during the late Qing Dynasty. He was the governor of Szechuan province during that time. His actual name is likely unfamiliar, but he went by the title of “palace guardian”, or Gong Bao. And that’s where the name came from, though it is usually translated as Kung Pao.

Lion’s Head Meatballs

These boldly-named meatballs have a rather simple story behind them. Whether you’re talking about the plain white recipe or the red meatballs cooked in soy sauce, they are called Lion’s Head meatballs just because their large size is vaguely like a lion’s head. They are not specifically shaped in any way. These pork-based meatballs have many recipes variations and are particularly popular in eastern China.

Ants Climbing a Tree

Another Szechuan dish, Ants Climbing a Tree may not have the most appealing name when you first see it on a menu. Thankfully, it’s just a piece of imagery and not an indication of any insect ingredients. A sauce with ground beef is served over fine rice noodles, and the pieces of meat sticking to the noodles look a little bit like ants on a branch.

Three Cup Chicken

Three Cup Chicken is very popular in southern China and Taiwan, and its name is a fairly straight forward description of the recipe. The sauce is made with 1 cup each of soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil. The source of the name is obvious and a little less picturesque than most. There is no single source for the origins of the recipe though there is one story that a prison warden made this dish for a political prisoner, and he had to make do with very limited ingredients.

Buddha Jumps Over the Wall

This soup dish is a luxurious mix of gourmet ingredients that can take up to 2 days to make. Unlike the other recipes mentioned so far, there is an actual story behind this fanciful name. The tale goes that a traveller had a pot of this soup simmering over the fire one night, and the exotic smells reached the nearby Buddhist monastery. One of the monks was so tempted, he leaped over the wall to find the source of the smell. It was said that Buddha himself would jump over a wall to get at this wonderful soup.

Crossing the Bridge Noodles

Coming from the Yunnan province, this soup is made by serving raw ingredients right at the table to be added to a pot of boiling broth. It cooks very quickly, keeping a crisp texture to the ingredients as you eat. There are a few stories about the name of this dish. The simpler one is that the recipe “crosses a bridge” between the bowls as you mix the raw vegetables and noodles with the hot broth. A longer tale describes a scholar who was studying on a small island. His wife brought him soup, but the noodles and vegetables were always overcooked by the time she crossed the bridge. So she started bringing the soup in two parts, so he could have it cooked fresh when she got there.

So next time you are at a Chinese restaurant, and your friends are scratching their heads at these descriptive and poetic names, you can share some of these stories with them.


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