China is a country that attaches great importance to names, honor, and prestige. The set phrase, to “achieve both fame and wealth,” gives the true meaning of the word “fame.” Only when people are famous worldwide have they laid the foundation to achieve great wealth.
The owners of many famous restaurants throughout the dynasties won praise from their customers for their good service and became famous. This, in turn, brought them more customers and still better business. Among them are the Donglaishun, Quanjude, and Hongbinlou restaurants in Beijng, the Songhelou Restaurant in Suzhou, the laozhengxing Restaurant in Shanghai, the Goubuli Restaurant in Tianjin, and the Juchunyuan Restaurant in Fuzhou. Of course, the pre-requisites for the restaurants being well known were their delicious food, fair prices, and honesty, or they would not have been famous.
During the period of the Qin and Han Dynasties dishes were named for their major ingredients and cooking methods, During the Southern and Northern Dynasties, some dishes received fancy names.
When ordinary dishes were given beautiful names, it raised the attractiveness of the dishes and made diners happy. For example, sliced fish mixed with orange was called “powdered gold and minced jade,” camels’ foot simmered with hearts of rape was called “desert boat sails on green,” quail and its eggs cooked together was called “mother and children get together,” chicken cooked with bear’s paw was called “palm controls the land,” a dish of shrimp, sliced tender bamboo shoots and mushrooms was called “leaves of wind, frost and snow,” a dish of sea cucumber, prawns, chicken breast, white fungus, and water chestnuts was called “butterflies swarm the peonies,” and a dish of chicken and soft-shelled turtle was called “Xiang Yu the Conqueror says goodbye to his concubine.” Fancy names reminded people of other things during the banquets and created a pleasant dining atmosphere.
Naming dishes is an artistic expression of the inventors; ideas. Often, dishes are named for natural phenomena and things that exist in nature: The four seasons, wind, flowers, snow, plants, gold, jade, gems, animals, and the moon have all been used in naming dishes to add beauty and appeal, to attract customers, and to increase diners’ appetites. Some examples are the “wind lulling cake” (a pan-cake first baked on a pan, then deep-fat fried before eating), “snowflake shortcake” (similar to the sweet and salty square available in Beijing today), “snow-box vegetable” (a green vegetable steamed with milk cakes), “snowflake bean curd” (stir-fried minced bean curd). “lotus flower sliced chicken” (a chicken dish made of quick stir-fired egg white, sliced chicken breast and corn starch), “100-flower chess pieces” (flat noodles cut into pieces and served with soup), “squirrel – shaped croaker,” and “black dragon spitting pearls” (sea cucumber braised with quail eggs). These names stress the taste, bright color, flavor, thick aroma and shape of the dishes.
The colors used in naming dishes are red, yellow, white and green. Psychometric tests show these colors help stimulate the appetite while blue and azure colors cause disgust. Moreover, bright colors produce a pleasant sensation and stimulate the appetite while dark colors have the opposite effect. The naming of dishes follows this principle.
People sometimes use names with luster rather than color to give the dishes a sense of quality, as in the dish “powdered gold and minced jade.” Gold and jade are both expensive, have a shining luster, and produce a pleasant sensation. Also used are jadeite (“jadeite shrimp and jadeite thick soup”), amber (“amber pork and amber peanuts”), crystal (“crystal pork leg” and “crystal shrimp cake”), pearl (“pearl turtle” and “pearl meatballs”), and brocade (“brocade ribbon soup”). If there are dark colored foods, people sometimes use lustrous terms to describe them.
Some dish names tell interesting stories. For example, the dish “five duke mixture of fish and meat” is described in the Miscellanies of the Western Capital as: “Lou Hu was an eloquent speaker and a frequent visitor of the five dukes, where he received delicious food. He blended the foods into a mixture of fish and meat, a rare delicacy later known as the ‘five-duke mixture’. ” The five dukes refer to the five brothers of the mother of Emperor Chengdi of the Western Han Dynasty, who all received the title of “duke” on the same day. The story tells that when Lou Hu visited these families, they all gave him cooked mixtures of fish and meat, but each had a different flavor. He blended them all together and cooked them again to produce a new flavor. His dish was later known as the five-duke mixture.
Hangzhou was the capital city of the Southern Song Dynasty. It was also the burial place of famous general Yue Fei who led the army of resistance against the invading troops of the Jin Dynasty. To express their hatred for the treacherous court official Qin Hui, people in Hangzhou called the deep-fried twisted dough sticks, which are a breakfast delicacy, “deep-fried Hui.” The people in Beijing called them “deep-fried devils” during the period when Japan occupied Beijing, because they called the Japanese invaders “devils.” During the same period, people in Sichuan, a rear base for resistance against the Japanese, called their local dish of rice crust with mixed dressings “bomb Tokyo.”
Some dishes were named to honor their inventors. The dish, “husband and wife sliced lung,” was invented by Guo Chaohua and his wife who lived in Chengdu. Pockmarked lady’s bean was a special dish invented by a pockmarked woman named Chen who owned a small restaurant near the Happiness Bridge in a northern suburb of Chengdu, Sichuan Province.
The “Duke of Pei’s dog meat,” a popular dish in northern Jiangsu Province, is said to have been invented by Liu Bang, the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty. He had been awarded the title, Duke in Pei, which is today called Peixian County.
“West Lake fish with vinegar” is also called “brother and sister – in – law’s fish with vinegar.” The younger brother of a fishing family and his sister – in – law, who both lived near West lake in Hangzhou, were both good at cooking fish with vinegar. They ran away after killing a despot who tried to blackmail the fishermen. The neighbors continued making their special dish in honor of them, and the fish dish has been a local delicacy for centuries.
“Dongpo Pork” is said to have been invented by Su Dongpo, a famous man of letters in the Song Dynasty, when he was an official in Hangzhou. He once mobilized the local people to dredge the lake, and he served stewed pork in Shaoxing rice wine with special flavor instead of water to reward them. The pork dish was praised as Dongpo’s number one dish.
The dragon and phoenix mixture tells a story from the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-265). general Zhao Yun escorted Liu Bei, who was newly married to Sun Shangxiang, a sister of sun Quan, duke of Wu, to Jingzhou. They were greeted by Zhuge Liang and his civilian and military officials. A grand banquet was held outside the southern gate of Jingzhou City, and the first course served was the dragon and phoenix mixture. The chef used eel for the golden dragon and chicken for the colorful phoenix to form a flying dragon and dancing phoenix on the plate. It implied good luck and beauty. The sweet and sour dish is golden yellow. The meat melts in your mouth and the skin is crisp. It is a delicacy in the Hubei cuisine that is often served at wedding dinners.
“Thong eel” tells a story about the 8th year of the reign of Emperor Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty. Zhu Caizhe, who had been born in Jianli County, Hubei Province, was appointed magistrate of Yilan County in Taiwan. Shortly after taking office, he had to decide a case where eels had destroyed the boundaries between paddy fields. The paddies in Taiwan seethed with eels, which lived in holes they dug in the ridges of the fields. Their holes destroyed the boundaries between the paddies and caused many civil disputes.
The local people did not eat eels, so such cases were extremely common. After investigating the cause of the boundary dispute, he ordered his family chef to cook an eel dish. He then asked both the plan tiffs and the defendants to taste it, and they all thought it was delicious. From then on, the people in the county caught eels for food and no longer filed suits before him. It is said that the dish was invented by a cook named Gou’er (the Chinese word for dog), which the local people called “thong,” hence the name “Thong eel.” Thong eel, which is crisp, soft, sweet and sour, is a famous dish in the Hubei cuisine.
There are many stories and allusions behind the names of Chinese dishes, which add to the mystique of the Chinese dietetic culture. There are elegant names, vulgar names, and farfetched names, but they all were intended to stimulate the appetite. The names of the dishes were mostly related to the status of the customers. At banquets attended by businessmen, the dishes were named to promote their business and their profitability, while palace dishes were named to with the rulers good luck and a long life.