Turkey uteri

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Last year in August, Valerie Syverson sent in a photograph taken at a storefront in Sydney's Chinatown that showed a package labeled "Bradysia homozygous". That sent me on a wild-goose chase, but eventually I was able to identify the product as leek turnovers and describe how the translation error had come about (see "Fungus gnat turnovers").

Now Valerie, who seems to get around the world, spotted the product in the following photograph in a Chinese grocery store in Ypsilanti, Michigan:

As Valerie says, this product is "Less etymologically confusing than the last sign I sent to you, but far more biologically implausible."

So, the first thing I did was carry out a web search for {turkey uteri} (no quotation marks or brackets). I found a lot of references to the first successful transplantation of a uterus into the body of a Turkish woman named Derya Sert on August 9, 2011, also to the gross anatomy and morphology of the uterus and vagina in turkeys.

None of that was helpful in trying to understand what was inside the opaque packaging pictured above.

If the Chinese matched the English, it should have been huǒjī zǐgōng 火雞子宫 ("turkey uterus / womb"), but I doubt that the contents of the package were actually that.

So I assumed that the English is wrong and the Chinese, huǒjī cháng 火雞腸, is right. But what is huǒjī cháng 火雞腸? In the most literal sense, it means "fire-chicken intestine", i.e., "turkey intestine". Though I'm sure that some Chinese might like to eat turkey intestines, that is not the usual meaning of huǒjī cháng 火雞腸 when we're talking about a food product. Here are some of the translations for huǒjī cháng 火雞腸 that I've seen: turkey ham (that doesn't sound quite right), turkey sausage, turkey franks (Oscar Mayer, no less!), turkey sticks (Gerber's, for toddlers), turkey roll.

But then I looked more intently at the nondescript package in the photograph, and it didn't seem like it contained sausages, franks, sticks, or rolls of turkey. So it might be turkey intestines after all!

Whatever lurks inside of that opaque package, it is undoubtedly made from some part of the "fire bird". As such, I suppose that it is a legitimate contestant for finding a place on the Thanksgiving table of a Chinese-American family, or anyone who likes turkey and likes Chinese food.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody! Eat up and enjoy yourselves, for tomorrow you will go out on Black Friday and shop till you drop, spending half your paycheck on the way.

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37 Comments »

  1. SeanH said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    My local Korean supermarket sells "pig uterus", which I have always assumed to be actual pig uterus, but now I'm wondering if it's a mistranslation.

  2. E. Beattie said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    Possibly the giblets? (Although it seems expensive for giblets …)

  3. MonkeyBoy said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    Couldn't you just call the grocery store and ask what turkey uteri are?

    I would guess the store is

    Hua Xing Asia Market
    2867 Washtenaw Ave
    Ypsilanti, MI 48197
    (734) 528-3388

  4. Peter Taylor said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    Could "fire bird" plausibly also have been translated "phoenix"? If so, that would have been even better.

  5. BongoBob said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 4:08 pm

    Mammals have uteruses, birds don't.
    And "uteri" just sounds wrong.

  6. Eric P Smith said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

    I did read once of a butcher's shop in Japan selling what it translated as "chicken bosoms".

  7. The Ridger said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    I'm sure it's giblets – what else could it be? Birds don't even have a uterus.

  8. Joe Green said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    @BongoBob: "uteri" seems correct to me (a nice regular Latin plural). Would you prefer "uteruses"? I'm happy with either.

  9. Ulobu said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

    I'm a native Chinese speaker.

    The Chinese word most probably meant turkey franks. The author said the package didn't seems to have turkey franks. Could you upload the picture? I'm curious to see what it actually is.

  10. Chad Nilep said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

    A delicacy in Japan is 鶏の金柑 "chicken kumquats", which are the un-laid eggs of slaughtered hens. Another delicacy, ガッツ (a transliteration of English "guts"), refers to organ meat, which in the context of poultry is typically giblets.

  11. Paul Trembath said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

    @BongoBob: It appears birds have a structure called the uterus, whatever connection it has or doesn't have with the mammalian uterus. See http://www.ca.uky.edu/smallflocks/Factsheets/Anatomy_and_Physiology/Anatomy_Female_reproductive.pdf.

  12. Calvin Li said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

    After conferring with my Chinese-born mother, I can confirm that bird (usu. chicken, but I suppose turkey is possible) intestines are in fact Chinese delicacies.

    So it would appear, Prof. Mair, that your conclusion is correct.

    (SeanH: I can also, unfortunately, confirm that pork uteri are in fact frequently sold in Chinese supermarkets as delicacies)

  13. Calvin Li said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 9:03 pm

    (and said intestines are known as jī cháng)

  14. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 10:05 pm

    @Ulobu

    That (above) IS the picture of the package.

  15. DW said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

    Is it certain that the picture shows a package? To me it looks likely to be a picture of a sign (perhaps at/over the meat counter).

  16. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 11:20 pm

    @DW,

    Well, it's all I had to go on to write the post, but you're right. What we're seeing might only be a sign inside of a plastic cover.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 11:20 pm

    from Nancy Berliner:

    when I was in China a couple of weeks ago I had a delicious octopus ovary soup……

  18. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

    from Gloria Bien:

    Here's a recipe for the real thing:
    http://www.cookee.cn/html/qingbao/20112011.html
    I'm not standing in line to taste it.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

    added note from Nancy Berliner:

    I will eat almost anything, but if truth be told none of us – even the elderly Chinese woman who ordered it – knew what it was. She just saw the name of the dish and ordered it. It was only at the end of the meal when I was commenting on how yummy it was and asking what it was, that we finally learned the actual ingredients. I have in the past also had bullfrog ovaries soup. Not as good as the octopus ovaries soup.

  20. David Morris said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 12:28 am

    I'm guessing that an octopus has eight ovaries, but that might make it an octo-ovo.

  21. DW said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 12:47 am

    I don't know what it is they're selling in Ypsilanti, and my acquaintance with Chinese is extremely slight, but the following may be relevant in some way.

    "生肠" apparently refers to uterus and/or oviduct and/or Fallopian tube, although I can't find the expression in dictionaries right now.

    One finds this apparently equated to the exact word "uteri" at various Chinese-language sites (Google [e.g.] //肠 uteri//). In some cases an ostrich is apparently involved (鸵鸟生肠). Here it seems to be a pig:

    http://zhidao.baidu.com/question/83850008

  22. Bob Ayers said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 1:00 am

    SeanH and others:
    My local Vietnamese supermarket in San Jose California (Dai Thanh) sells "pig uteri" in the meat section.

  23. Valerie Syverson said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

    Thanks very much!

    We thought 肠 meant "intestines" only, but if it's generally more like "viscera" (and if it's the same used for pig uterus, which I can confirm is a real thing people eat) then it all makes a lot more sense. We also found references to people eating actual turkey intestines, FWIW.

    What really blows my mind, though, is the link in the post to morphology of the vagina and uterus in turkeys. I never knew that people refer to the oviduct as a uterus, and neither did my friend the dinosaur specialist (the person to whom I first sent this photo).

  24. Jim said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    Bob,

    Pig uteri are a big item in the Vietnamese stores here in Tacoma too. There's no consistency in choosing the English term to translate the Vietnamese though – they also sell "pork bung", not "pork ani". I guess it doesn't matter whether the term is native or Latinate so long as it's sufficiently opaque.

  25. Rodger C said,

    November 23, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

    To be clearly distinguished from "pork butts."

  26. julie wei said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 1:09 am

    The Chinese CHANG "intestines" also means "sausages". So I believe the label means Chinese-style turkey sausages. Typically, Chinese-style sausages are made of pork. Sausages in Chinese are called LA CHANG "lunar-twelfth-month intestines" or XIANG CHANG "fragrant intestines", and they're made of pork, (Lunar twelfth month because traditionally sausages and hams were made in households in the month before lunar New Year's.) Here, the label says "turkey intestines" in Chinese, which would suggest "turkey sausages", Chinese style.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    For a semantic parallel, in Yiddish "kishka" means both "intestine" and a not un-sausage-ish dish made of stuffed intestines. I believe that comes from Polish and maybe other Slavic languages. I would also like to point out that in Yiddish "pupik" means both navel and gizzard.

  28. David Bloom said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    The chicken oviduct-ovary complex (see picture) is definitely used in Cantonese cooking–my helpmeet has been known to serve it up, with the soft embryonic eggs all lined up as if on a conveyor belt, corresponding to Chad Nilep's kumquats. She says it is loosely known as 雞腸 ji chang/chicken intestines (or is the spectacular highlight of a well-prepared dish of chicken intestines) but a Hong Kong food safety ordinance calls it 雞子 jizi ("chicken child"). Doing the same with a turkey sounds even more grotesque to this barbarian ghost, but I think that is what it must be.

  29. julie wei said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    @David Bloom

    Thanks for the chicken oviduct-ovary complex picture and your explanation of it as named JI CHANG (chicken intestines) and served in Cantonese cooking. I can well believe that "turkey intestines" may well mean the same oviduct-ovary complex. It must be thought of as full of nutritious hormones. I know my mom once served us human-placenta cooked in soup (it was spongy and rubbery) and encouraged us with the words "It's very fortifying, full of good hormones and nutrition." I bit into a piece but couldn't swallow it. (My mom requested the placenta from a hospital delivery-room nurse who was her friend. This was in Taiwan.)

  30. Acilius said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

    @Joe Green: You learn something every day. I'd always assumed that the Latin uterus was a fourth declension, so that the plural would be uterus. But you're right, it really is a second declension.

  31. GAC said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

    @Peter Taylor: I wish they would translate phoenix as "fire bird", but as far as I know the usual Chinese translation is 凤凰 feng4huang2, which is a mythological Chinese bird whose only similarity to a phoenix is that it is a mythological bird — in other words, it is neither on fire nor regularly reincarnating. In fact, I don't think the fenghuang does much at all except look pretty represent marriage and femininity.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    November 25, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

    From Toni Tan:

    Could this be turkey “lap cheong”? (turkey sausage)

  33. J. Goard said,

    November 25, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

    @GAC:

    Speaking of which, the Korean word for a phoenix is a truly amazing pun — Sino-Korean 불사조 (不死鳥 'not-die-bird', 'immortal bird'), but with a first syllable that is homophonous with the native Korean word for 'fire', and the whole name evoking 불사르다 'burn up, cremate'.

  34. Valerie Syverson said,

    November 26, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    The picture is of a sign over the meat counter, which contained no sausages.

  35. secondmonkey said,

    November 27, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    I refuse to pay more than $5/lb for turkey uteri.

  36. Alexander said,

    November 27, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

    The small intestines of a pig (exactly what you'd use for standard sausages) are regularly labeled as "pig uteri" in almost every Chinese (and Vietnamese) grocery I've been to (mid-Atlantic U.S.). I don't know why because, when the label is also in Chinese, it always has the Chinese for intestine and not uterus.

  37. julie lee said,

    November 27, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

    @Victor Mair, re Tony Tan's comment:

    Cantonese "lap cheong" 臘腸 is pronounced "la chang" in Mandarin, which refers to turkey sausage, Chinese style, which I mentioned above.

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