Bear Foot Bean Curd and Open Mouth Laughs: The Delightful names of Chinese Dishes


Music – “The Ideal Chinese Dinner Party 9” from Chinese – Dinner Party Series by Global Journey. Released: 2006.

Anyone who has ever eaten at a “Chinese” restaurant, whether true Chinese or “Americanized” Chinese will recall the delightful and colourful names given to the myriad dishes. Frequently, the eater needs a bit of imagination to envision exactly what the dish is composed of. It becomes even more interesting (and amusing), when a cook in China, perhaps with limited English, attempts to “translate” the name of the Chinese dish into something intelligible for visiting Anglo tourists.

If you have ever ordered “Chrysanthemum Hot Pot” in a Chinese restaurant, you would be gauche if you really expected it to have Chrysanthemums in it these days, although centuries ago, Empress Dowager Cixi created her famous original “Chrysanthemum” hot pot, scattering some of the flower’s petals into a finished soup. Other stories suggest that the dish is so named as it is traditionally served in autumn, when the weather is cooler and chrysanthemums are in full bloom.

"Chrysanthemum Hot Pot" (you would be unlikely to get flower petals in it these days!) (Photo Credit:

“Chrysanthemum Hot Pot” (you would be unlikely to get flower petals in it these days!) (Photo Credit:

There is the mysterious “Fried Dragon and Phoenix”, which, according to Kenneth Lo in his book “Chinese Food” is created with seafood (scampi or scallops – the “Dragon”) and cubed chicken (the “Phoenix”). Lo also mentions a recipe for “Little Red Heads”, which consists of pork fat, flour, dates and crystallized chopped fruit, rolled and sliced, fried and then steamed and dotted with red food colouring.

I heard that the Chinese eat something called "Little Red Heads".  Should I be worried?" (Photo Credit:  www.pinterest. com/explore/gingers)

I heard that the Chinese eat something called “Little Red Heads”. Should I be worried?”
(Photo Credit: http://www.pinterest.

Many of us might have sampled “Ants Climbing a Tree”. Minced beef is stir-fried with spices and soaked bean threads are added, which resemble tree branches.  The minced beef resembles the ants. Of course, you need a fair degree of imagination to envision the analogy.

"Ants Climbing a Tree" requires a bit of imagination to extrapolate the image to the food! (Photo Credit:  morsels andmusings.

“Ants Climbing a Tree” requires a bit of imagination to extrapolate the image to the food! (Photo Credit: morsels

Have you ever tried to make a dish with shrimp legs? You know, those teeny, tiny little feathery things you pull off with the shell?

"I heard her say she was making "Shrimp Legs with Nori.  I think we'd better vamoose!" (Photo Credit:

“I heard her say she was making “Shrimp Legs with Nori. I think we’d better vamoose!” (Photo Credit:

Well, “Shrimp Legs with Nori”, a Taiwanese recipe, does not actually contain shrimp legs, but it does contain a shrimp mixture, which is wrapped in a sheet of Nori (seaweed). The results resemble sushi rolls, rather than shrimp legs, but heck, it sounds more interesting.

The delightful “Open Mouth Laughs” is a recipe for a sweet, fried dumpling, coated in batter and sesame seeds. Huang Su Huie gives her recipe for them in the book “Chinese Snacks”.

"Open Mouth Laughs" (Photo Credit:

“Open Mouth Laughs” (Photo Credit:

Even more inviting is “Bear Foot Bean Curd”, a recipe from “Madame Wong’s Long-life Chinese Cookbook”. As might be expected, there is nary any bear to be found in the dish, but it does contain bean curd, shredded pork, bamboo shoots and spices. Why it is called “Bear Foot Bean Curd” is unspecified, but then, this is part of the lovely mystery of eating Chinese dishes. “Thousand Year Sauce Chicken”, also from Madame Wong’s book is so named, as the author indicates, because the master marinade may be kept “indefinitely” in the refrigerator, however, a thousand years seems a bit of a stretch.

Lady in the Cabbage” consists of a mixture of steamed shrimp and ham, divided into portions and placed on blanched bok choy. Presumably the shrimp and ham mimic “the lady”.

The Chinese name many of their dishes with names beginning with “Eight Precious…”, “Eight Jewel…”, or “Four Happiness…”. Examples include “Eight Precious Pork” and “Four Happiness Eggs”. These dishes certainly sound much more mysterious and fascinating than “Kidney Kabobs” or “Luncheon Surprise”.

"Four Happiness Pork" (Photo Credit:

“Four Happiness Pork” (Photo Credit:

According to recipes from Gloria Bley Miller in her well-known book, “The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook”, it takes a lot longer to get a chicken drunk than it does a shrimp. “Drunken Chicken” must steep in a marinade for 7 days. On the other hand, “Drunken Shrimp” become inebriated in just an hour.

The Chinese know that a chicken takes longer to get drunk than a shrimp  (Photo Credit:  www.

The Chinese know that a chicken takes longer to get drunk than a shrimp
(Photo Credit: www.

Peking Dust” is not the incessant airborne clouds of silt, which I encountered in a visit to Beijing in 1988, but is a sweet dessert composed of chestnuts, heavy cream and powdered sugar. And, “Quick Little Boys” is not actually a dish, but refers to the supposed nimbleness and speed at which one can eat using chopsticks.

This is the real "Peking Dust", not the stuff that blows all over Beijing (Photo Credit:  chinesefood.

This is the real “Peking Dust”, not the stuff that blows all over Beijing (Photo Credit: chinesefood.

"Quick Little Boys" are chopsticks (Photo Credit:  weblogs.

“Quick Little Boys” are chopsticks (Photo Credit: weblogs.

According to Kenneth Lo in “The Encyclopedia of Chinese Cooking”, “Vegetarian Toasted Shrimp” obviously doesn’t contain any shrimp, but is composed of bean curd, bread, sesame oil and seasonings. “Dish of Harmony” consists of a well presented dish of mashed green peas and mashed corn, plated and divided by an “S” shape, representing the Chinese symbol for harmony.

Would you eat “Bean curd made by a pockmarked woman”? It is apparently made with ground pork, tofu, and chilies, and named for a widow, who was forced to live on the outskirts of Chengdu on account of her pockmarked face. As the story goes, on a rainy evening, a couple of travelers took shelter in her home and they thought the dish she prepared for them was so fabulous that her house became a regular stop for travelers to Chengdu. So the story goes, but there are other versions.

Buddha Jumped Over the Wall” is certainly a dish, which conjures up an interesting image. Once again, there are several “stories” as to the name, but the most common one concerns a scholar traveling on foot to the Imperial Court during the Qing Dynasty, accompanied by several other scholars. This particular scholar preserved all of his food in a clay jar. Whenever he had a meal, he would warm the jar over a fire and the smells wafted to a nearby Buddhist temple on one occasion.

"Buddha Jumps over the Wall" (you can clearly see why it is thus named, can't you?) (Photo Credit:

“Buddha Jumps over the Wall” (you can clearly see why it is thus named, can’t you?) (Photo Credit:

The monks were not permitted to eat meat, however, one monk was so tempted by the smell that he jumped over the wall to where the scholar was heating his meal. A poet among the scholars said that “…even Buddha would jump over the wall to eat this delicious dish”, and thence the name.

Some of the more amusing Chinese to Anglo translations for tourists visiting China include “Husband and wife lung slices”, now described more accurately as “Pork lungs in chili sauce”. “Husband and wife” is a frequent description for various food pairings. Then, there is “Old adopted mother fillet”, “The parsley explodes muscle” and “Return a meat”. These are the unfathomable dishes, which leave us in a total quandary as to determine exactly what is in them. “Slip away a chicken slice”, “Burns the beef sandwich” and “Lucky example food sauce” do not excite my taste buds, however, they do test my brain cells to find analogies to things edible! All things considered, a freshly transplanted Chinese immigrant to the US might be equally confused by confronting dishes such as “Rice and Beef Porcupines”, or “Roly-Poly.” Artistic license is alive and well in cooking, no matter where you live!

My EatYourBooks cookbook collection

About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,500. What next? More shelves?
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1 Response to Bear Foot Bean Curd and Open Mouth Laughs: The Delightful names of Chinese Dishes

  1. Funny but cute names!

    Check out my blog for tons of easy and delicious recipes.



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