Naked dough

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Reader Janet sent in this photograph of a food stall in Taiwan (source):

The large characters say:

luǒtǐ zhà nǎi 裸体炸奶
nude/naked — exploded/fried/burst/blasted/blown up — breast/milk

Better keep this one out of the hands of Chinglish translators!

The four characters are actually a transcription for "roti canai" ("c" is pronounced as "ch"), which is a typical, everyday Malaysian dish that has an Indian origin. As Janet exclaims, "It's such a beautiful bread dish. Add curry to it and it is heaven!"

I remember the word "roti" very well from my days (1965-67) as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, because I often ate something called "pal roti". I forget how to write the "pal" part (it sounds like "Paul") and don't remember exactly what it means, but the bread sure was delicious.


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

    Maybe it's not so common in Philadelphia, but roti is a common dish in New York (you can often buy it for lunch in the office-building sections of Manhattan from food trucks or sidewalk carts if you know which corner to look on at which times) — having first traveled from South Asia to Trinidad a century ago and then to NYC via both Indo-Trinidadians and Afro-Trinidadians. If you want to leave Manhattan you can go to an immigrant-heavy neighborhood in one of the outer boroughs and buy your roti from a nice middle-aged lady on the other side of some bulletproof glass, as recommended here:

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

    While the "roti" that JWB refers to is a specific type of Indian bread, in Malay/Indonesian "roti" has been generalized to cover any kind of bread (including Western bread in sliced loaves). More specific kinds of bread typically are denoted by hyponymic compounds like "roti canai".

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

    Notice that they use the simplified character tǐ 体 ("body") instead of the traditional form 體. I do not know for certain, but I suspect that, like tái 台 ("terrace; platform") instead of the traditional form 臺, they prefer to write 体 instead of 體 because it is so much easier and simpler. Furthermore, both 体 and 台 are old (i.e., pre-PRC) characters.

    It would be interesting to note how many other simplified characters of this sort are used in Taiwan, and, of these, how many:

    a. date to the Republican period

    b. date to the pre-Republican period

    c. have been taken up from the new simplified forms

  4. Jim Dew said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

    I'm pretty sure people have answered these questions. Maybe Tom Bishop has the answers. Many, many were in use, informally for the most part, before 1911, and others undoubtedly were added between 1911 and mid '60s, when they came into general use on the Mainland.

    Weren't there even efforts by the Republican MOE to promulgate lists of simplified characters — efforts that didn't get far because of resistance on the part of — whom? scholars, officials, parents?

  5. John Rohsenow said,

    May 22, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    I think that Dayle Barnes wrote about the Nat. govt's history with
    character simplification quite a while back. I wrote a paper in Sino-
    Platonic Papers on "How Many Simplified Characters can TW Recognize"
    in which I mentioned how the older simplified forms and those derived from "running" and "grass" style forms were of course easier for people
    in TW to read than the ones "made-up" in the l950s.

  6. Katie Odhner said,

    May 24, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

    I wrote a paper for Professor Mair's class this fall on character simplification in the Republican period. As Dr. Dew pointed out, the Ministry of Education did officially approve a list of 324 simplified characters in 1935. That particular scheme was created by Qian Xuantong. He didn't view simplified characters as a permanent solution, so I believe his list was solely comprised of simplified forms that had been in common circulation for centuries. His goal was to make the writing system more efficient until a phonetic system could be implemented. The scheme was withdrawn after only a few months. The exact reason is unclear, but it is usually attributed to the intervention of the conservative official Dai Jitao.

    There were several other schemes suggested in the Republican period. Some were similar to Qian's in that they simply advocated accepting preexisting simplified forms, while others involved more fabricated characters, such as the scheme proposed by Chen Guangyao. Dayle Barnes wrote a great article on Chen ("A Continuity of Constraints on Orthographic Change: Chen Guangyao and Character Simplification"), which may be the paper that Dr. Rohsenow was referring to.

    The most interesting discovery I came across while writing the paper was a book published by Luo Jialun in 1954 from Taiwan. It's called "The Simplified Character Movement" 《简体字运动》. I hadn't realized that scholars continued to advocate for simplification even after the civil war. He wanted the Nationalist government to accept simplified forms already in circulation. This included both century-old simplifications such as those from the Yuan and Song dynasties, as well as contemporary simplifications used among common people. Interestingly, he tried to link the scheme to Nationalist political goals. For instance, he said that since the "Communist bandits" were implementing character reforms, mainland people would no longer be willing to accept traditional characters once the mainland was recovered by the Nationalists. Therefore, the government on Taiwan needed to come up with a simplification plan comparable to the one being implemented by the Communist government. He also referenced specific mottos and speeches given by Chiang Kaishek and linked simplification to the goals of modernization expressed by President Chiang. According to Zhao and Baldauf, Luo's scheme was met with "significant and enthusiastic support from the population."

    I'm still working on tracking down more evidence to back up this claim. I'd also like to find out more about how Luo's proposal was received specifically. If any readers of this blog have information on it, I'd be very grateful if you left a comment!

  7. Jane said,

    May 25, 2014 @ 7:47 pm

    As someone who grew up in SEA (Malaysia & Singapore), and is a Chinese (considered the Chinese language my mother tongue) and is also very fond of roti canai, my reaction to "裸体炸奶" (音譯) transliteration may sound too strong.

    I find it vulgar, insensitive and disrespectful to other culture – unfortunately such transliteration is rather common in monolingual Taiwan and China, a very night market kind of vulgar pop culture(夜市市井文化). My impression, Taiwanese seems to be the expert of such vulgar use of language, e.g, 波霸奶茶. It can't even be categorized as pidgin English but simply vulgar and disrespectful.

    No doubt ot attracts eyeballs and very likely, boost the sales.

    As for the use of simplified "体" instead of the traditional "體", my take is: it attracts mainland Chinese tourists.

    By the way, if Chinese must be used for Roti Canai, we simply said "印度麵包 Indian Bread" in Singapore and Malaysia.

  8. wanda said,

    May 26, 2014 @ 2:02 am

    Jane- India is a very big country with lots of culinary traditions. I am familiar with many types of Indian bread; the main one they serve in the restaurants here is naan, although there is also dosa, paratha, puri, etc in addition to roti. Also, the roti in India is not always the same as the roti in Southeast Asia. So, translating "roti canai" as "Indian bread" seems to not quite fit.

    Also, why is attempting to copy the sounds of another language vulgar? Is it vulgar in English when speaking about typhoons or raccoons?

  9. Jane said,

    May 26, 2014 @ 9:57 am

    Wanda – I am familiar with many types of Indian bread as well, and had travelled extensively to the country. To answer your question, because in SEA, specifically in Singapore and Malaysia, there was only roti canai and it was one of the staple foods of Indian, namely Tamil, who was brought over by the British as coolie (over the decades the Indian in these two countries have 'invented' quite many varieties of 'indian bread' and they are not anything like Naan (nan). Naan is baked while roti canai and its varieties are fried, on a flat iron plate, and Naan was not common in Mama Stalls (street vendor), Kopitiam, hawker center, food court. So by "Indian bread" we meant "bread eaten/sold by Indian" – but after decades of integration among the three races; it's not uncommon to find Malay sells "Indian bread" or "Baozi" (Chinese Steamed Bun).

    Also, why is attempting to copy the sounds of another language vulgar?

    It is vulgar because of the subtext for "裸体" "Naked body" and "奶" (not 'milk' but 'woman's breast') in Chinese culture which often associates to gossip and dirty jokes between men; if gossip between women it sometimes carries a disparaging tone. It's not uncommon to use transliteration for foreign word instead of translation (though I would say not as common for foods), but the fact that in Chinese language many characters share the same sound it's not difficult to find more neutral characters that don't carry a subtext under cultural or social stigma. I would also like to point out, exactly because many characters share the same sound, changing a character to another with the same sound or a similar sound, can be used as insult, disparagement, bully or humor; though I find this more common in China, for example, "中国共产党中央委员会 (Simplified)" (Central Committee of the Communist Party of China) is "黨(党 – S)/中央“ in short form, and the Chinese netizens from China often replaced the character, "黨(党-S)" with "襠(裆)" which associated to "裤裆" (crotch of trousers)" and "襠(裆)中央" refers to the penis. It's a mocking and disdainful manner to show their hatred and disdain towards the Chinese government.

    I'm not fully sure, but I don't think you can find similar subtext from English when a foreign word brought into English the way Chinese language does. Perhaps English tongue is more respectful in this respect too.

  10. Jane said,

    May 26, 2014 @ 10:09 am

    It is vulgar because of the subtext for "裸体" "Naked body" and "奶" (not 'milk' but 'woman's breast') in Chinese culture which often associates to gossip and dirty jokes between men and that is contains only one connotation, which is sex. It's so common and widespread that a Chinese doesn't have to be a Taiwanese can also understand the vulgar meaning it carries.

  11. Boyd Michailovsky said,

    May 27, 2014 @ 8:45 am

    Is the bread accompanied by chick-peas (Hindi canā, pl. cane)?
    Nepali "pal roti" is surely pāuroṭī 'Western style loaf bread', still made by Krishna Pau Roti on Putali Sadak (and now many others) in Kathmandu. ("pāu" means 1/4 of something, or 1/4 kg ~ 1/2 pound).

  12. Chas Belov said,

    May 29, 2014 @ 2:15 am

    @Jane – May 26, 2014 @ 9:57 am
    Ah, good point. The slang term for Taiwanese tapioca ball drinks is boba, which is also as slang term for women's breasts. Shades of the #YesAllWomen hashtag.

  13. Chas Belov said,

    May 29, 2014 @ 2:19 am

    @Jane – also no translations/transliterations come to mind, but AmE slang for tank top or A-shirt (not sure which) is "wife beater," which is surely offensive, although I'd be surprised to see it in commercial use.

  14. Chas Belov said,

    May 29, 2014 @ 2:21 am

    Oops, sorry, spoke too soon (you may not want to see this)


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