Monday, July 28, 2014

The Naming of Dishes

How are dishes named? What are the mechanisms by which they get the name?

The CC is going to talk about naming but only within the context of "traditional" dishes. "Traditional" is a loaded word and chefs these days give all kinds of fanciful names (which is also traditional) but we'll keep it relatively well-known.

The classification of naming depends on the language in question but the type of structures are definitely universal in that there are similar ideas in every cuisine.

Descriptive Names

This is the easiest category and also the largest. This describes the vast majority of dishes in almost all cuisines. The titles are self-descriptive and anyone who understands the grammar of a specific cuisine could with high probability just reproduce the dish without even looking at a recipe.

Fanciful Names 1 (Metaphor)

The older the cuisine and the greater the level of Imperial involvement, the greater the chance you are going to have metaphors do the heavy lifting for the dish.

The Japanese tatsuta age (竜田揚げ) refers to the river "tatsuta" where the leaves in autumn float down all brown and beautiful presumably. The dish is diced chicken deep-fried. Presumably the brown-ness of the perfectly fried chicken is the correlative.

Chinese cuisine (especially of the Imperial derivation) is particularly adept at this level of poetic metaphor. It's extremely hard to know what the dish is even if you read Mandarin fluently. If you already don't know the answer, you are not going to figure out that "desert boat sails on greens" refers to "camel's foot with hearts of rape".

The Japanese oyako don (親子丼) refers to "parent and child in donburi (bowl)". The parent is the chicken and the child is the egg. It's a rice dish topped with chicken and eggs.

We as a species have been this for a while.

Distilled alcohol in Latin is acqua vitae ("water of life"). Then translated into Gaelic we got uisce beatha which when rendered in English became whisky. (That's how the first word is pronounced.)

Lest this sound all too poetic for words, let us observe that even the "Bloomin' Onion" falls under this category.

Fanciful Names 2 (Euphemism)

Rocky Mountain Oysters.  (Prairie oysters in Canada.)

They are fried bull calf testicles with the obvious parallel to fried oysters. The euphemism makes the dish go down easy (pun intended!)

Chicken feet are "phoenix claws" in Chinese. Bottarga refers to the dried and salted ovaries of the red mullet.

And restaurants regularly feature squab because few people would eat it if it just said young pigeon which is exactly what it is.

One of the most common ways euphemism is executed is by substituting a foreign word or phrase for a concept that would be unpalatable locally. Escargots (French) instead of snails. Calamari (Italian) instead of squid. Boudin noir (French - black sausage) instead of "blood sausage", etc.

Euphemism is a large part of human food naming. It's pretty global. We find new and innovative ways to disguise certain blunt truths about our omnivorous eating habits.

Fanciful Names 3 (Alliteration)

We humans are suckers for alliteration. This is one of the figures of speech that exists in almost every language in the world.

The examples are endless — Rump Roast, Crispy Chicken, etc.

This concept goes hand in hand with the next one — that of onomatopoeia. Rendering the sound is nice but adding in the alliteration (typically via repetition) makes the name of the dish really memorable.

Fanciful Names 4 (Onomatopoeia)

The CC's favorite example is that of biángbiáng noodles from China's Shaanxi province. The kanji for "biáng" is not even standard. It refers to the slapping sound of the dough on the table when the noodles are made in the traditional way.
Another example is the Japanese shabu-shabu (swish-swish). This is Japanese hot-pot where you cook the meat and vegetables yourself in the hot boiling broth at your table. The "swish" refers to the sound that you make while swirling your food in the broth while it's cooking. (Note the importance of onomatopoeia because while shabu-shabu refers to the food just mere shabu is Japanese street slang for heroin. You don't want to confuse the two.)

Fanciful Names 5 (Parallel Association)

The dish Carpaccio specifically referred to raw beef because the paper-thin slices of raw beef resembled the pinks used by the painter Vittore Carpaccio. It only dates to about the 1950's when refrigeration made serving of raw beef possible. The origin is from Harry's Bar in Venice.

Today it refers to any thinly shaved meat or vegetable. Hence you have "tuna carpaccio" and "salmon carpaccio" and "zucchini carpaccio" even though the colors have nothing to do with it any more.

The association jumped from the color to the thinness of the shaving of the ingredient.

This sort of association is a weak form of metonymy in which the concept got so strongly linked to some aspect of the original dish that it jumped out as a generic descriptor.

Country Names

As a general rule, if the dish contains the name of its own country, it's origin is likely to be somewhere else.

This is counter-intuitive at first but logical on closer examination. You don't need to label something as "native" if it were actually native in the first place. Only if you wish to convince someone that something from the "outside" is really "inside" then you go about naming it after your own country.

Pad Thai is emphatically not Thai. The stir-fried noodle dish is unambiguously Chinese in origin even though the sauces and tastes are very much Thai. The government was heavily involved in promoting this dish as "Thai" in the 1930's and 40's.

Local Names

This is the wild card in this list. It could go either way.

Buffalo Wings probably did originate in the city of Buffalo. The Black Forest Cake is an English translation of the German Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. (Note: The German does refer to the "Black Forest" but it's also more precise that it's a cherry torte. The original dish is using a metaphor of the Forest for the black chocolate but the English treats it like a place of origin which it is not.)

Worcestershire Sauce is almost definitely not from Worcestershire. There's a bit of dubious branding (read below) going on. It's based on the ancient Roman garum (fish sauce).

Baked Alaska was invented in New York at the famous Delmonico's in 1876 to commemorate the acquisition of the territory.

And the various "chowders" floating around the East Coast originated no more locally than the CC originated in Siberia. They are all variants of ancient cooking styles even if the strong regionalization is a matter of preference and tradition.


This list is really endless particularly in the 19th century. Flattering your patron whether it's a king, the king's courtiers, or the modern day version - movie stars is always good business even if the idea is mostly recycled.

The list can either be of the originator (Caesar Salad, Fettuccine Alfredo - see next section on "branding") or that of the some famous personality - mostly opera and movie stars (Peach Melba, Melba Toast, Turkey Tetrazzini).

The famous Auguste Escoffier, codifier of French haute cuisine was a master at this game and he learnt it from his teacher Marie-Antoine Carême. He played this game shamelessly with everyone from kings to composers to theater personalities (the movie stars of their day).

Please note modern day examples like the "Shirley Temple" and the "Baby Ruth" candy bar.


This is largely a 20th-century American thing but it would be remiss not to mention it even if just in passing.

Brands have entire units to promote their ingredients. Everything from Coca Cola to Heinz have entire research units pumping out recipes for their ingredients and have had them for at least the last 70 years. The purpose is to "support" the brand. Examples abound.

This is not limited to companies. The "Can" in Canola oil refers to Canada. It didn't sell very well as rapeseed oil ("raped oil" anyone?) but when they changed the name euphemistically to the country that was promoting it, it became popular and then generic. That's what it's called all over the world now. (Note: Canola didn't originate in Canada. The rule of countries applies. They just branded it.)


Do dish names matter? The CC would argue that they do.

A great dish with a memorable name will turn into a classic. Even a so-so dish with a catchy name has a great shot.

Just like rhyme and assonance gives a sort of memorability to poetry, the same set of rules lend a mystique and power to the names of dishes. It has more to do with humans and language that it has to do with cuisine but it's just as important.


macavity said...

Mind BLOWN. I LOVE this article.

macavity said...
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