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What’s In a Name? For Chinese Food, Sometimes It’s Not What You Think

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Cantonese Pineapple Bun. Photo by McPig

Cantonese Pineapple Bun. Photo by McPig

With today’s health and dietary concerns, more attention is paid to what’s in the food that we eat. However, when it comes to popular Chinese menu items, some dishes are misnamed, and in some cases downright misleading. Here are some offerings that you may find at your local Chinese restaurant where the name of the item doesn’t correspond to what the dish really is.

Cantonese Pineapple Buns

I love the pineapple buns you get at dim sum restaurants, cafés and bakeries (known in Cantonese as bo lo bao, literally “pineapple bun”). This is in part because I really like the flavor of pineapples. I always thought the pineapple was the powdery yellow stuff on top of the bun, so imagine my chagrin when, after decades of eating these, I find that there’s no pineapple content at all. The term pineapple bun describes the look of the bun, craggy on top like the surface of a pineapple, and has nothing to do with the ingredients. The only thing that makes me not feel completely silly is that very few people are aware of the lack of pineapple in pineapple buns. Oh well.

Taiwanese Chicken Roll

Taiwanese Chicken Roll. Photo by Austin Wang

Taiwanese Chicken Roll. Photo by Austin Wang

I’ve watched my intake of cholesterol my entire adult life, so going to Taiwanese restaurants has been a challenge. With a menu full of items like fried pork chops, pig ears, and pig tripe, it’s rough finding dishes conforming to my dietary preferences. Consequently, an old standby for me has been the Taiwanese chicken roll, with a crispy tofu wrapper and a pastry or minced meat filling. I recently learned that there is no chicken in the Taiwanese chicken roll. Similar to the Cantonese pineapple bun, it’s called chicken roll because the crisp bean curd skin wrapper looks like chicken skin. And the filling is made out of fish paste and pork.

Hong Kong-style Chicken Tail Bun

Chicken Tail Bun. Photo by caffe d'bolla

Chicken Tail Bun. Photo by caffe d’bolla

Just one bite of this dim sum dish will make it clear that there’s no chicken, since it’s a sweet bun made with coconut. By this time you think you’ve spotted a trend and have concluded that “chicken tail” buns have something to do with their appearance. But that isn’t the case here. The name chicken tail bun is an adaptation of the original name for the item, “cocktail bun.” (Get it? Cock = chicken) The name cocktail bun was derived from the fact that when it was originally invented, the bun’s filling was a paste-like amalgam (i.e., cocktail) of ground-up, day-old buns, coconut and sugar. However, nowadays only fresh ingredients are used.

Sichuan-style Saliva Chicken

Saliva Chicken. Photo by Kirk K

Saliva Chicken. Photo by Kirk K

Finally a dish with a chicken name that actually has chicken in it! Hopefully nobody thinks saliva chicken has anybody’s saliva (human or chicken) as an official ingredient. But what could the name possibly refer to? The dish itself consists of steamed chicken flavored with a wide variety of ingredients, including ginger, sesame seeds, peanuts, onions, cilantro, salt and sugar. The explanation of the name? It is supposed to be so delicious that the thought of eating it makes you salivate. Still, you think they would have called it yummy chicken, or mouth-watering, or something like that instead.

Fish Stew Soup

Fish noodle, or fish maw, soup. Photo by Denan Pan

Fish stew, better known as fish maw, soup. Photo by Denan Pan

I first encountered fish stew soup at a Chinese restaurant in Washington D.C. Chinatown, expecting maybe some kind of Chinese cioppino or chowder. What I ended up with was fish maw soup. For the uninitiated, fish maw is the dried bladder of a large fish. Fish maw soup is commonly found on the menu of Hong Kong-style restaurants, and I happen to like fish maw soup, so I was fine with my order. (Fish maw, like birds nest, shark’s fin, jellyfish, and bamboo pith are Chinese ingredients that have little taste of their own but are prized for their texture.) Fortunately, most Chinese restaurants serving fish maw soup use the correct name. But not all of them do, and I feel really sorry for the unsuspecting who are blindsided when they order fish stew soup.

French-style Shrimp and Fish

One of the most popular recent additions to the menus at Hong Kong-style restaurants in the United States is French-style filet mignon, a slightly spicy, slightly sweet, slightly savory dish served on a bed of lettuce leaves and raw onion rings and garnished with tomato slices at each end of the dish. This presentation is fairly uniform in all the Chinese restaurants. And now one sees Hong Kong-style restaurants serving dishes called French-style shrimp and French-style fish fillets. The fish and shrimp dishes are served in a similar manner to the filet mignon dish in the same spicy, savory, sweet sauce with shredded lettuce, raw onion rings and sliced tomatoes. But what the restaurants who serve French-style shrimp or fish don’t seem to recognize is that French-style refers to “French cut,” where the steak is cut into small cubes. It does not refer to the accompanying ingredients and manner of presentation. And French-style shrimp and French-style fish are definitely not cut into little cubes. What’s next? French-style rice?

Cats Ears

Cat ears. Photo by Uncornered Market

Cat ears. Photo by Uncornered Market

No, the Chinese didn’t do the unthinkable to poor tabby. This is another visually named dish, originally from Shanxi province — chewy clumps of dough usually served stir-fried, but also found in soup. But if you’re like a cat fancier friend of mine who won’t eat catfish, you might be inclined to avoid this dish too.

Fish Noodle Soup

Fish noodles. Photo by bwaters23

Fish noodles. Photo by bwaters23

Fish noodle soup is a dish found predominantly in the eastern part of Manhattan Chinatown at Fujianese-style restaurants. This item is actually opposite of the other dishes discussed in this article — the name is misleading because it is too accurate. People ordering fish noodle soup expect a hearty broth containing fish and noodles. What they get is plain noodle soup and no fish. So how can the name be accurate? The noodles are made out of a fish-based flour. These noodles have an elastic crunch to them, likely another Chinese food item whose primary selling point is the texture, rather than the taste sensation.

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  • artzlin

    Thanks you for your article. The same goes for the Shanghai vegetarian goose dish. No goose meat. It resembles the Taiwanese chicken roll you described. Can you please recommend a restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley that offers the delicious Shanghai vegetarian goose?

    • David R. Chan

      Most Shanghai restaurants have the dish. It’s just that they use all sorts of names, including vegetarian duck or even a reference like bean curd skin.

  • http://about.me/justinchen Justin C

    Hmm I don’t think I’ve ever had Cat’s Ears. Where can I find it in LA?

    • David R. Chan

      JTYH Restaurant in Rosemead; Golden Spoon in Rowland Heights, among others

  • artzlin

    Tried the freshly baked pineapple bun along with the pumpkin filled tent shaped dim sum at Atlantic Seafood.. Very good.

David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 6,297 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.


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