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Chinese Recipe Name Origins

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Lion's Head Meatballs

Lion's Head Meatballs

Rhonda Parkinson
There is a mystique that surrounds the origin of certain recipe names. Take Caesar salad, for example. People often assume that the classic combination of romaine lettuce and dressing dates back to the time of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. In fact, its origins are much more recent, although the exact circumstances defy documentation. In one version, it was invented in 1924 by Caesar Cardini. If true, the Tijuana restaurateur must have been amazed by the confusion he unleashed when he chose to bestow his own name on his culinary masterpiece.

Another view holds that Caesar Salad was created in 1906 in the United States, and named in honor of the Romans. This makes sense when you consider that the Romans held romaine lettuce in high esteem, believing it had health-giving properties. (In fact, it is rumored that Emperor Caesar Augustus erected a statue in honor of the leafy green vegetable).

And then there's Chicken Cordon Bleu. Try as you might, you won't find a step-by-step procedure for stuffing chicken breasts with ham and cheese in any of the standard French cookbooks. While its origins are difficult to trace, the dish probably debuted in New Orleans, the brainchild of a chef who once trained at the France's world-famous cooking school Le Cordon Bleu.

Like all great mysteries, the truth about how these two famous recipes came to be named will probably never be known. The Chinese have their own collection of tales surrounding the origin of certain recipes:

Three factors that may play a role in naming a Chinese dish:

  • the appearance of the dish - (lion's head meatballs, ants climbing a tree)
  • the person who supposedly invented the dish or caused the dish to be invented (kung pao chicken, pockmarked tofu, beggar's chicken)
  • how the dish is made - (crossing the bridge noodles)

    How did these popular Chinese dishes get their names?:

    Beggar's Chicken:
    This is a wonderful story. A homeless, starving beggar is wandering along a road when he catches sight of a chicken. Desperate for food, he kills the chicken by wringing its neck. Lacking a stove, he covers the chicken in mud, makes a fire and bakes it. (One version has him plucking the feathers off the chicken as he eats).

    At this point an Emperor passes by with his entourage. Attracted by the aroma of the baked chicken, he stops and dines with the beggar, demanding to know how he created such a delicious meal. "Beggar's chicken" is subsequently added to the list of dishes served at the Imperial court.

    This story has a footnote. In "The Chinese Kitchen", Eileen Yin-Fei Lo notes that people are not always happy with the name of the dish. In Beijing you'll sometimes see Beggar's Chicken called "Fu Guai Gai," or "Rich and Noble Chicken."

    Lion's Head Meatballs:
    It's easy to understand the name once you've seen the dish. The oversized meatballs, roughly the size of tennis balls, represent the lion's head, while cabbage represents the lion's mane.

    Kung Pao Chicken:
    It's common knowledge that this dish is named after an official; however, from there it all gets rather murky. In some versions Kung Pao is a general who lived during the Ching dynasty. In others, he is a crown prince who discovered this dish while travelling and brought it back to the Imperial Court. There's even some confusion about whether the dish originated in Shanghai or Szechuan.

    Cookbook author Helen Chen provides an interesting twist on the story. In Chinese Home Cooking, she states that Kung Pao was the title given to the person charged with protecting the heir apparent, as Kung meant castle and Pao meant to protect. During a certain period, the Kung Pao was a man whose favorite dish happened to be spiced chicken with peanuts, and thus over time it was named after him. Whatever the case, the stories demonstrate the Chinese belief that naming a dish after an important figure gives it more prestige.

    Ants Climbing a Tree (Ants Creeping up a Tree, Climbing a Hill):
    The name refers to the bits of ground beef or pork (thought to resemble ants) clinging to vermicelli noodles (the tree).

    However unusual the names, these dishes all came by their fame honestly. After all, taste is what really counts! Here are the recipes:

  • Ants Climbing a Tree
  • Beggar's Chicken
  • Kung Pao Chicken
  • Lion's Head Meatballs

    Want to know more? Check out Chinese Recipe Name Origins, Part II.
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