Tasty: from saliva chicken to ants climbing a tree
Although most dishes are named after the ingredients, their creator or place of origin, the names of some all-time classics are not only strange, but also a little frightening.
Like “devils on horseback” and “angels on horseback,” two hot French appetizers that respectively wrap dried fruit or oyster with bacon.
Or “toad in the hole,” a classic British dish consisting of sausages (not toads) and airy Yorkshire pudding.
For people new to Chinese cuisine, some items on the menu are also hard to comprehend.
A notable example is “husband and wife lung slices.” An all-time favorite from Sichuan, husband and wife lung slices, or fuqi feipian, has a very scary name. But rest assured, no human is harmed in the making of this starter.
The main ingredients are actually thinly sliced beef and beef offal, including heart, tongue and tripe, served with a spicy, mouth-numbing chili dressing.
The origin of this dish traces back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when street vendors were selling beef offal slices served in cold dressing in Chengdu — poor man’s food because offal was cheap.
In the 1930s, a couple in Chengdu rose to fame for making this cheap and delicious dish. People named the beef offal slices husband and wife’s wasted slices, as the character fei 废, meaning waste, has the same pronunciation as lung, fei 肺.
The husband, Guo Zhaohua, and wife Zhang Tianzheng opened a restaurant in 1933 in Chengdu named Husband and Wife Lung Slices.
Although beef lung was used in making the dish, it was soon removed because of the taste, so the modern slices rarely use lung. Instead it normally is a combination of beef meat and heart, tongue and tripe.
GQ food critic Brett Martin named husband and wife lung slices as “Appetizer of the Year” in the magazine’s April issue in 2017.
The dish he had at a Sichuan restaurant named Pepper Twins in Houston is named Mr. and Mrs. Smith after the American action-comedy film.
Ants climbing a tree, also known as mayi shangshu, is a Sichuan dish with a scary name and quite unappetizing presentation that actually has neither ants nor tree branches.
The main ingredients in the classic recipe are minced pork meat and cellophane noodles, which when mixed together presents the similar image of ants climbing a tree — the small bits of minced meat are the ants, and the noodles are the branches. And the chopped scallion sprinkled on top of the dish can be the green leaves.
Ants climbing a tree is a popular dish served with steamed rice because of its rich flavors, as rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, garlic, ginger and chili paste are used to season the meat and noodles.
Cellophane noodle is a thin, transparent noodle made of starch and water, which is different from rice vermicelli.
In Shanghainese cuisine, cellophane noodles are used in the fried tofu with thin noodles soup.
Beggar’s chicken is a traditional dish from Hangzhou which wraps a stuffed chicken in clay and bakes on low heat so the meat of the chicken can absorb all the rich flavors and fall apart easily.
There are different stories of how this dish was created.
One legend has it that a beggar once stole a chicken from a farm, but he had no pots to cook it, so he came up with the idea of wrapping the chicken in lotus leave and used clay to seal it. He set it in a hole and lit a fire, buried the chicken so it would cook.
When the beggar dug up the chicken and smashed open the clay, he was surprised to see how the chicken became so tender, juicy and aromatic.
Another legend associated with a beggar’s chicken was when Emperor Qianlong traveled to Jiangnan (south of Yangtze River) as a commoner, he was lost in the wild, and a beggar gave him a cooked chicken, which he considered a delicacy. The hungry emperor found the chicken delicious and asked the beggar for the name of the dish.
The beggar was embarrassed to say a beggar’s chicken, so he called it the wealthy’s chicken. This is why it’s called wealthy’s chicken in some places.
Today, the recipe of a beggar’s chicken has evolved to include mushrooms and a handful of spices and herbs. It’s preferably made with sanhuang chicken (free range yellow chicken) as the meat is tender and juicy.
The wife cake, a traditional flaky pastry in Cantonese cuisine that’s also known as sweetheart cake, has a sweet filling of candied winter melon mash, almond paste and sesame seeds. The husband cake is a variant of the wife cake and has a savory filling.
There are several legends about this pastry’s origin, most are tales of married couples. One tells of a Chaozhou pastry chef who brought a lot of pastry home for his family, but his wife said they weren’t as good as her winter melon cake. She made a cake with winter melon mash filling and the chef was impressed. When he returned to Guangzhou, he brought a bag of his wife’s cake and everyone praised it, so it was named the wife’s cake.
Other fun names
Green pepper with tiger skin, a classic stir-fry with spicy, sweet and sour flavors, actually refers to the slightly burnt and wrinkled skin of the green pepper when it’s sauteed in oil on high heat.
The green pepper with tiger skin uses a sauce of dark soy sauce, cooking wine, vinegar and sugar, which gives the dish a compound flavor. This dish is preferably made with the spicier green pepper, but sometimes non-spicy peppers are used so children can eat the dish.
Flies’ heads is a Taiwan dish with a rather disgusting name. It’s actually a simple stir-fry made of finely chopped garlic, minced pork, chilis and fermented soy beans.
The name, flies’ heads, refers to the black fermented soy beans.
It’s very easy to make and an ideal companion to steamed rice.
Rolling donkey, a classic Manchurian and Beijing dessert, was also named for its appearance.
The dish consists of a cake made of steamed proso millet flour with red bean paste filling. After the cake is cut into pieces, it’s rolled in light yellow soy bean flour, a process that resembles the image of a donkey rolling on the ground and raising dust.
The proso millet flour cake is very sticky, and favored by the Manchurians. Today, rolling donkey is mostly made of glutinous rice flour.
With a weird and disgusting name, saliva chicken, a Sichuan cold dish, is actually made of steamed chicken, which is chilled, sliced and served with a spicy chili sauce, chili oil, toasted peanut crumbs, toasted white sesame seeds and Sichuan peppercorn.
The word saliva actually refers to the mouthwatering effect the dish brings and how people salivate when eating the tongue-numbing chicken.
Buddha jumps over the wall, also known as Buddha’s temptation, is an extravagant soup dish that got its name because the flavors from cooking dozens of ingredients become so intense that Buddhas, who are vegetarians, would leave meditation, jump over the wall to partake in the meat stew.
A classic dish from Fujian Province, it requires expensive and highly nutritious ingredients such as sea cucumber, abalone, chicken, pigeon and ham. This soup requires one to two days to prepare, so it’s often served at formal banquets.