Steamed native

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Commenting on Facebook about Ben Zimmer's Language Log post on the Iraqi "Paul is dead" buffet sign, Anne Erdmann shared this buffet sign from China:

The Chinese says zhēng tǔchǎn 蒸土产, for which Google Translate gives "steamed native", while Bing Translator gives "steam products" and Baidu Fanyi gives "steamed products".

But what could zhēng tǔchǎn 蒸土产 really mean? Zhēng 蒸 presents no problem; it simply indicates "steamed". Tǔchǎn 土产 signifies products that are indeed "native / indigenous / local". The structure of tǔchǎn 土产 is modifier + noun = noun, i.e., "native / indigenous / local product(s)", without specifying which particular local product(s). Such products may also be called tǔ tèchǎn 土特产 ("local / native / indigenous special products").

In the Facebook thread, Mike Lyle commented: "I can shed light on 'native'. In the appropriate context it's Britspeak for a non-imported oyster, and this looks like such a context."

Now, the Chinese word for oyster is mǔlì 牡 蛎, and there are several possible ways to say "native oysters". One would be guóchǎn mǔlì 国产牡蛎 ("domestic oysters"), on the model of guóchǎn dàiyú 国产带鱼 (Trichiurus haumela; "domestic hairtail"), a kind of cutlass fish, and jìnkǒu dàiyú 进口带鱼 ("imported hairtail"). The former is more expensive than the latter.

It could also be translated as běndì mǔlì 本地牡蛎 ("local oysters"), on the model of běndì qiézi 本地茄子 ("local eggplant"), as Beijingers say in reference to locally grown aubergines.

All of this talk about "native" or "domestic" oysters reminds me of a related expression that caught my attention during trips to Taiwan and China, viz., tǔjī 土鸡 ("native / local / indigenous chicken"). Not only do I like the sound of tǔjī 土鸡, I love the taste, which is so much more delicious than chicken that is intensively produced on large farms and shipped to market frozen.

In recent years, tǔjī 土鸡 has taken on a new connotation, what in English we would call "free range chicken". The equivalent expression in Chinese is zǒudì jī 走地雞 ("pastured poultry"), which I find to be somewhat amusing, since it literally means "chicken which walks / runs around on the ground".

[Hat tip Ben Zimmer; thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Jing Wen, and Rebecca Fu]


  1. Mark Meckes said,

    May 30, 2014 @ 2:56 pm

    I was once told that in parts of Francophone Africa, free range chicken is called something like "poulet bicyclette".

  2. richardelguru said,

    May 31, 2014 @ 7:08 am

    presumably they all ride with no hands.

  3. Anne Erdmann said,

    May 31, 2014 @ 7:48 am

    Thank you, fascinating! I'm not sure what was in the tray, but it looked like it might be some sort of melon or squash. (This was breakfast.) It definitely looked steamed, whatever it was. I'm reasonably confident it wasn't oysters.

  4. Anne Erdmann said,

    May 31, 2014 @ 7:51 am

    PS. This was a trip to far western China. I don't speak any Chinese, but I made an attempt to identify as many characters as I could. After a while, some were easy to recognize because of their frequent adjacent English translations ("China", "Entrance", "Exit"). There was one character I saw everywhere that I couldn't correlate to English, though. I finally sketched it for a local guy and asked him what it meant. He said, "Forbidden".

  5. julie lee said,

    May 31, 2014 @ 8:09 am

    When I first saw the sign "Steamed native", there was a familiar ring to it but I couldn't quite place it.
    Now it's come to me—-it's like the sign "Eat local" in California's markets these days.

  6. Chas Belov said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 4:22 am

    I can't speak to the steamed native, but in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chinese for their version of free-range chicken is 黃毛雞 (yellow-hair chicken). I once asked a restaurant worker what 黃毛雞 meant and they said "The chicken runs around the yard," which would pretty much confirm it's free-range. However, it tends to be much leaner and less meaty than the free-range chicken available in western meat markets, so it appears to be raised in a particular way for Chinese Hong-Kong-style and Vietnamese restaurants (for pho ga).

  7. Chas Belov said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 4:33 am

    Oh, yes, if it's in a Vietnamese restaurant, 黃毛雞 would be ga dai (as is pho ga dai). Sorry, I don't know the tone markings.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 8:03 am

    I suspect that huángmáo jī 黃毛雞 (lit., "yellow hair chicken") is basically a Cantonese term. There's a discussion (started January 14, 2006) about 黃毛雞 on Sheik, the Cantonese language forum:,56710

    It's interesting that Sheik refers to zau2dei6 wong4mou4 gai1 走地黃毛雞 as "free range chicken".

    The latter entry says that this term is also used in Mandarin / Standard written Chinese, but Sheik doesn't bother to give a Mandarin pronunciation, which leads me to believe that — if used in Mandarin / Standard written Chinese — it is borrowed from Cantonese.

    Sheik lists wong4mou4*1 黃毛 as appearing in two Cantonese expressions:

    wong4mou4*1 aa1tau4 黃毛丫頭 ("silly/witless young girl")


    zau2dei 6wong4mou4 gai1 走地黃毛雞 ("free range chicken")

    I suspect that a wong4mou4 gai1 黃毛雞 is what my father used to refer to as a "pullet", a term that has been in English since the 14th century: "A young domestic hen, usually one that is less than one year old."

    This would account for the comments in online discussions about the wong4mou4 gai1 黃毛雞 which state that it is smaller than a normal chicken.

    I hope that those who are familiar with Cantonese will weigh in on wong4mou4 gai1 黃毛雞 and zau2dei 6wong4mou4 gai1 走地黃毛雞.

  9. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 8:31 am

    since it literally means "chicken which walks / runs around on the ground".

    … as they sometimes do, if you let them ;-)

  10. Victor Mair said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 8:59 am

    After reading Anne Erdmann's comments above, my surmise is that the sign could be moved around and used for a variety of presumably locally grown foods that are prepared by steaming.

  11. hanmeng said,

    June 1, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

    I almost told my tǔ​gǒu anecdote again.

    Note that 土 tǔ also may mean "rustic / uncouth / unsophisticated".

  12. Andrew Bay said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    I hate it when I make the locals angry. How did they make them so small?

  13. Philip L said,

    June 2, 2014 @ 11:22 pm

    土雞 – My (female) cousin in Taipei calls them 'exercise chicken'.

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