Tasty Chinese

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Jen Cardelús writes:

I live in a primarily Chinese community in the San Gabriel Valley (near LA) and don't yet speak any Chinese.  I've been wonderfully bemused by the restaurant naming conventions in the area, and was wondering if you have any insight into how Chinese people name restaurants, and what (if any) particular words are presumably being translated to reach the strange/humorous results.  In particular, "tasty" is used in the names of countless area restaurants. (My favorite is the lamentably-named Thousands Tasty, but there are also Tasty Garden, Tasty Dessert, Tasty Dining, Tasty Choice, New Tasty, Tasty Food, Tasty Noodle House, Tasty Duck, Beijing Tasty House, etc.)  Obviously, "Garden" is another word often used in Chinese restaurant names that would never be used for a non-Asian restaurant in the US.  Are these same sorts of restaurant names also seen in China, or are these patterns specific to Chinese restaurants in the US?  As a sidenote, it is amazing to me that so many immigrants opening restaurants must not know anyone with a reasonable command of English to run their proposed restaurant names by (e.g. Qing Dao Bread Food).

Jen has indeed hit upon an interesting aspect of Chinese restaurants in America, not just in the San Gabriel area.  If you do a search on tasty Chinese, you'll find hundreds of Chinese restaurants with "tasty" in their name all across the country, and indeed throughout the world.  There's even an O'Tasty Chinese Restaurant in Washington, DC, which I suppose is related to O'Tasty Chinese Food Inc. in Alhambra CA.  Then we have lots of cute names like Cosy & Tasty Chinese Dumpling Cafe.

Of the few "tasty" Chinese restaurants that also gave their Chinese name, I didn't notice any that had a word equal to "tasty" in it.  This is not an insuperable problem, however, since our earlier forays into Chinese restaurant nomenclature show that it is common for the their Chinese name and their English name to be completely unrelated, e.g.,

"Me Old China"

"Gourmet Chinese cookshop"

Anyway, were all those Chinese restaurant owners who named their establishment "tasty" this or that thinking of some particular Chinese term when they did so?  Here are some Chinese terms that might be translated into English as "tasty":

hǎochī 好吃 delicious, tasty

kěkǒu 可口 tasty, delicious

shuǎngkǒu 塽口 delicious, palatable, tasty

shuǎngkǒu 爽口 delicious, palatable, tasty

yǒuwèier 有味兒 delicious, tasty

měiwèi 美味  delicious, tasty

pènxiāng 喷香 delicious, fragrant

I don't think that any of these terms are frequent adjectives in restaurant names written in Chinese.

Perhaps the restaurateurs are getting "tasty" from one of their trade journals such as Chinese Restaurant News.  Or maybe they were inspired by Tasty Chicken, which is a common name for restaurants in America.  I doubt that they were prompted to name their restaurants after Tastykake, since — until recently — that was a strictly Philly phenomenon (though it has now spread to a few other places on the East Coast).

I am inclined to believe that Chinese speakers of English — especially those who are into food (which means most Chinese) — simply like both the sound and sense of "tasty".  That is certainly true of my friend Angela Chang / Tan, who is an avid cook with several cookbooks to her credit.  Here's a video about one of them:

"Angela Chang: The Intriguing World of Chinese Home Cooking".

Even in this well-prepared and informative presentation, Angela repeatedly uses "tasty", which is one of her favorite English words:

2:01, 3:53, 5:08, 6:40, around 7:14 ("taste", "best-tasting").

On the other hand, Chinese friends with more sophisticated English tend to prefer words like "savory".

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30 Comments »

  1. Sal said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 8:17 am

    "Obviously, "Garden" is another word often used in Chinese restaurant names that would never be used for a non-Asian restaurant in the US."

    Olive Garden?

  2. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    "Panda" is a Chinese restaurant name that throws me off a bit. I've never eaten in one but I've seen quite a few of them in various parts of the country. I always wonder what the specialty is.

  3. Theophylact said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 8:26 am

    The Tastee Diner in Bethesda is locally famous and non-Chinese.

  4. Chris said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 8:33 am

    The local Chinese restaurant here at the Elephant and Castle in London used to be called "The Well". There was a hiatus, then the original owner returned, but then called his new restaurant incarnation "After Taste". I doubt he realised what the implication of those words in English is.

    My Chinese husband tells me that the Chinese names of a restaurant are rarely directly translated into English on the sign.

  5. julie lee said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 11:04 am

    Jan Cardelus in Victor Mair's post says:
    "Amazing to me that so many immigrants opening restaurants must not know anyone with a reasonable command of English to run their proposed restaurant names by (e.g. Qing Dao Bread Food)."

    Indeed. When I go to the huge Chinese malls in the San Francisco Bay Area in places like El Cerrito (near Berkeley), Cupertino, and San Jose, I feel I am in Taipei or Hong Kong because not only are there markets, restaurants, and shops in them, but there are dentists, banks, private schools to help Chinese immigrants, dancing schools (including taiji, gongfu, ballet and tap), insurance companies and other services, all run in Chinese by Chinese. Who needs English? I met a Chinese woman who cooked meals in her home for busy Chinese professionals which they picked up. She had lived with her husband and children in Palo Alto for years and didn't know English. She was running a business fine without English.

    I find a similar situation with some Mexican communities here in the Bay Area. Just north of the leafy, wealthy, hushed area of Atherton in Palo Alto, the scene suddenly changes into a tumbledown multi-colored lively sprawling Hispanic section where just about all the signs are in Spanish. Almost no English. I go there for fresh vegetables. Whenever I drive there I exclaim to myself: "I'm in Mexico!"

  6. Ned Danison said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

    The reason for similarity among Chinese restaurant names is most likely that new restaurants choose names that sound like existing Chinese restaurants, mixing and matching words like garden, panda, wok, tasty, etc. In a given geographical area there will likely be a proliferation of certain terms (where I live in upstate NY, wok and garden seem popular).

    The question is, how do these names originate? I don't know, but I wonder if restaurant names in the Sinosphere are translated into English.

  7. julie lee said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

    My favorite Chinese-restaurant name is one I saw in Chicago called Wok 'n Roll. Someone had to know English to think up that one.

  8. Jeff W said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

    …since our earlier forays into Chinese restaurant nomenclature show that it is common for the their Chinese name and their English name to be completely unrelated…

    In San Francisco, for example, there’s a restaurant called 海港城 [hoi2 gong2 sing4] (or “Harbor City” in English)—which happens to be the name of one of Hong Kong’s largest shopping malls—but its English name is All Season (no s at the end).

    I don’t get exactly why that is, since the directly-translated name “Harbor City” seems about as good as (if not better than) the actual English name “All Season.” (There’s no other “Harbor City” restaurant in the area, AFAIK, so the directly-translated name would not have caused any confusion.) It seems as if, to me, anyway, from the owner’s point of view, neither name has any relevance from the other speaker’s perspective—an English speaker won’t know or care what 海港城 means and a Chinese speaker won’t know or care what All Season means—so why not choose whatever name the owner likes in either language.

    The reason for similarity among Chinese restaurant names is most likely that new restaurants choose names that sound like existing Chinese restaurants…

    That’s what I think also. It seems like there is one set of names (or words) for Chinese restaurants in Chinese in the non-Sinosphere—that probably tracks pretty closely to whatever set there is in the Sinosphere (it would be surprising if it didn’t)—and another set of names (or words) for Chinese restaurants in English in the non-Sinosphere and there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the two sets—e.g., the word “tasty,” maybe “wok.”

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

    @Jeff W

    I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    The same thing holds for movie titles, where the English and Chinese titles are usually miles apart.

    http://www.dnforum.com/threads/english-movie-titles-translated-into-chinese.56994/

    http://www.shortlist.com/entertainment/films/50-funniest-movie-title-translations (click on the pictures; these are hilarious)

    http://www.forumosa.com/taiwan/viewtopic.php?t=84129 (see esp. the fifth item)

    For all of the above, the Chinese titles have been translated into English for the convenience of those who don't read Chinese.

    BTW, the translations of Chinese film titles into English is usually more direct, with much less license being taken.

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 4:28 pm

    @Julie Lee:
    I wonder if it's a chain? There are Wok 'n' Roll restaurants here in New Bedford, MA, in Providence, RI, and on Cape Cod.

  11. maidhc said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    Some other words popular in Chinese restaurant names: wonderful, lucky, dragon. Also gold or golden, but in those cases the Chinese name frequently means the same thing.

    In San Jose there is a restaurant named Oriental Garden, but their Chinese name means The Great Wall. And there is a different restaurant named The Great Wall in English. The most common name in the San Jose area is Shanghai Garden. There are about 5 of them with no apparent connection to each other. Only one of them serves Shanghainese cuisine. Jade Garden comes second.

    A convention that seems to be confined to the South SF Bay area is Chef So-and-So. I believe a very popular and successful establishment, Chef Chu, set the pattern on that one. I have collected a number of examples here.

    Another category of restaurant names are named after famous restaurants in China. That usually implies that they feature the same kind of cuisine as the original. That's hard to tell if you're not familiar with Chinese cuisine in China.

    There are several other Wok-punned names. Wok This Way has something like 5 examples around the world.

    In the US quite a few Chinese restaurants have Cantonese names. This can be a challenge since there's not much Cantonese support on-line. Google Translate only takes Mandarin, not Cantonese, for example.

    If you want a data set to research how Chinese restaurant names vary in different countries around the world, more than 20,000 examples can be found at
    Chinese Restaurant Worldwide Documentation Project
    .

  12. Nancy Friedman said,

    May 10, 2014 @ 7:46 pm

    In California there are Wok 'n' Roll restaurants, variously punctuated, in Long Beach, Stockton, Chico, and Westwood (Los Angeles). There used to be one in Davis, but it closed. In Yorba Linda (Orange County) there's a Lettuce Wok N Roll. As far as I can tell, each restaurant is independently owned.

  13. julie lee said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 12:12 am

    Ralph Hickok and Nancy Friedman,
    Thanks for letting us know that Wok 'n' Roll is a chain. I love the American humor of the name, quite different from a bland name like P.F. Chang, another chain in these parts.

  14. Martin said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 7:53 am

    The Chinese name usually means "make lots of money".

  15. Dan Jurafsky said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

    Tasty Garden, one of my favorites in the San Gabriel Valley of LA, is called 稻香 in Chinese (as is an unrelated but also good restaurant in San Francisco, Hong Kong Lounge). This name might translate to "Fragrance of Paddy Rice" or "Rice Fragrance" or something like that. In the Dream of the Red Chamber, Li Wan lives in 稻香村, which David Hawkes translates as "Sweet-rice Village". So although I agree that the English names of Chinese restaurants are often not created by translation, it's also possible that in some of these cases the OP discusses, there might be some link between "tasty" and 香 'fragrant', since 香 'fragrant' is a very common Chinese word but hard to translate colloquially into English. Chinese (and perhaps especially Cantonese) is very rich in words for smells, and it seems natural to me that these would turn into words for tastes in an English version. Anyhow, somebody should ask the owner of one of the places like the SGV "Tasty Garden" about the history.

  16. PeterL said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

    Maybe the strange restaurant names are a reflection of the lack sophistication of the diners.
    Compare: http://www.seaharbour.com/ (in a suburb of Vancouver, BC)

    BTW, 美味しい is pronounced "oishii" in Japanese.

  17. maidhc said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

    There's supposed to be a Chinese restaurant in Sydney Australia whose Chinese name means Occidental Food. Can't find the reference right now.

  18. Jeff W said,

    May 11, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

    @Dan Jurafsky

    there might be some link between "tasty" and 香 'fragrant', since 香 'fragrant' is a very common Chinese word but hard to translate colloquially into English

    My completely lay theory after reading these posts is that, for some names/words for Chinese restaurants in Chinese, there’s a set of words in English that have a higher likelihood of being chosen for the restaurant name depending on the sound/desirability of the word (“tasty” is one of Angela’s “favorite” words), its use by other restaurants (a kind of “herd” theory), or its semantic content (“fragrant” ≠ “tasty” but they both refer to positive sensory experiences so one might be “close enough” to the other) or some combination of these.

    Maybe, for names in English that are completely unrelated to the Chinese names ( (e.g., 海港城 [meaning “Harbor City”] and “All Season”), there is some idea that the Chinese words translated directly into English just won’t be as meaningful to English speakers—perhaps, they’re assumed not to be able to get the “full” meaning—so better to stick with some tried-and-true variation of the Tasty Wok/Shanghai Garden kind or, well, something else (“All Season”) in English entirely. (Maybe some names in English of restaurants named in Chinese after famous restaurants in China might fall into this category.) Again, that’s just a guess.

    Viewing some of these names in the context of translation may not even be the right assumption—the completely unrelated Chinese and English restaurant names don’t appear to be even attempts at translation; they’re more like choices from two different lexicons where some (loose) semantic match between some of the words is just one, but not the only, factor. The Chinese speakers read and understand the Chinese name, the English speakers read and understand the English name, and no one has to be too concerned that, in some cases, the two names have little or nothing to do with each other—especially, if there is a working assumption that (most) people in either group won’t even know (maybe more so for the English-speaking group) or pay attention to (maybe more so for the Chinese-speaking group) what the name intended for the other group means. (The “non-translation” assumption, if that’s what is going on, seems as interesting to me as why a particular translation might be the way it is.) Again, that’s just my own armchair theory.

  19. V said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 2:07 am

    There's the Wok to Walk Dutch chain here in Europe, but it's to specifically Chinese but general East Asian. Being Dutch, they have a nice Indonesian influence.

  20. Ollyver said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 7:05 am

    Wok 'n' roll is not just a chain of restaurants.

    There is a rock'n'roll pantomime troupe in North Wales. On the years that they do Aladdin (which inexplicably has bits set in faux-China) it is called the wok'n'roll panto.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 8:19 am

    Daniel Jurafsky recently made an interesting comment on this thread:
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=12290#comment-698165

    From NYT (May 10, 2014)

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/opinion/sunday/daniel-jurafsky.html

    Daniel Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford. He teaches a popular freshman seminar course called “The Language of Food,” which is also the title of his forthcoming book.

    …FOLLOWING Language Log, which is a blog that talks about current linguistic and computational linguistic issues. If something comes up in the news and you want a linguist’s perspective, that’s the blog to go to….

  22. Mr Punch said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 9:09 am

    In my area (Cambridge, Massachusetts) we have all of the above – Chef So-and-so's, Work 'n Roll, and Tasty and Garden in both Chinese and non-Chinese usage.

  23. Nancy Friedman said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 1:27 pm

    @JulieLee and @Ollyver: As far as I can tell, Wok N Roll is not a chain–the restaurants are miles apart and do not share a parent company. Thus each was named independently, no doubt by someone who thought he was the first to come up with such a fabulously creative and hilarious name.

  24. rwmg said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 3:12 am

    @Ollyver Before Disney got their hands on it, Aladdin was set in China, or a Middle Eastern idea of China as a generic far away land, anyway.

  25. Francisco said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

    Regarding the examples of translated movie names it is possible that most of the semantic and stylistic drift actually happens in the translation back into english. Case in point, 'Encontros e desencontros' is an acceptable free translation of 'Lost in Translation' but its rendering back into english as 'Meetings and failures in meetings' is atrocious.

  26. Frank Shyong said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

    Came here from Twitter – I did a half joking analysis of a restaurant database of more than 6,000 chinese restaurant english names compiled by a diligent eater, David Chan. It looks at the most commonly occurring terms and animals and regions sighted in Chinese restaurant names. Tasty, gourmet, yummy, and yum are some of the most commonly appearing terms in the sample. Thought it might be of interest to you all.

    http://www.chinatownies.com/?p=11

    Also, if amenable, I'd like to talk about cross posting this on our website chinatownies.com. How can I get in touch?

  27. Bob said,

    May 14, 2014 @ 7:19 pm

    Something not commonly known, particularly for smaller Chinese restaurants, the owners/operators you see, are usually 2nd owners. There is a group of smart Chinese who do the market studies, select the locations and build the restaurants. They will build up the business (say, in 1 to 3 years, and sell the restaurants to some buyers who want to take over a proven business. The founders then move on and build another Chinese restaurant, usually with some similar name. –if such person is aggressive enough, he will build the next one without transfer ownership of the 1st one– Such transactions also include financing and food supplies arrangements.
    This is the reason for some Chinese restaurants with similar names.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    May 15, 2014 @ 6:35 am

    @Bob

    "This is the reason…."

    –> "This is one reason…."

  29. Anna said,

    May 20, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

    A local restaurant here has the English name "Flourishing Chinese Seafood." I don't know enough characters to be able to parse out what the Chinese name actually is, but I've always wondered what the "flourishing" signifies. They also have a typo on their sign, stating that they are "fully license," but that's not an uncommon error to see in non-native English speakers.

  30. Mark S. said,

    May 21, 2014 @ 12:17 am

    Taiwan has a popular restaurant chain known simply as "Tasty." It specializes in Western food (or, rather, Taiwan-style Westernish food).

    Its Mandarin name of Xīdī Niúpái (西堤牛排) clearly came from the English rather than vice versa. (Most people use the English name anyway.) Oddly, though, the company uses a quasi-Chinesy-style font in its logo.

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