Potatoes Torch

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Anne Henochowicz spotted this food package in New York Chinatown:

"POTATOES GLASS NOODLES" is mystifying enough, but what do we make of "Potatoes Torch, Water" that comes after "Ingredients"?

The Chinese at the top says:

hóngshǔ fěnsī 红薯粉丝 ("sweet potato vermicelli")

Some potato terms:

shǔ 薯 (generic "tuber")

hóngshǔ 红薯 (lit., "red-tuber" > "sweet potato")

mǎlíngshǔ 马铃薯 (lit., "horse-bell-tuber" > "potato")

tǔdòu 土豆 (lit., "earth-bean" > "potato")

There are many other names for this New World crop in China (which, together with maize and the peanut, substantially accounted for the population explosion that took place in China between the 17th and the19th centuries); some of them are quite colorful, and each has a story behind it, e.g.:

yángfānyù 洋番芋 (lit., "foreign-barbarian-taro")

shānyàodàn 山药蛋 (lit., "mountain-medicine[i.e., yam]-egg")

zhuǎwāshǔ 爪哇薯 (lit., "Java tuber")

For those who are interested in more Chinese terms for "potato", see here. I will not attempt to explain the Chinese terms for yam, taro, and so forth, which are difficult to keep straight in English too.

We have written about Chinese vermicelli made of various types of starch before on Language Log, e.g., "Urine meat balls".

By itself, fěn 粉 means "powder; noodles or vermicelli made from bean, potato, or sweet potato starch", etc.), but the fěn 粉 in these recipes is usually mǐfěn 米粉 ("rice-flour noodles / vermicelli"). Fěnsī 粉丝 ("vermicelli") can also be made of mung bean starch and, as with the hóngshǔ fěnsī 红薯粉丝 that we're discussing here, of sweet potato starch. This is the hint we need to make sense of "Potatoes Torch". If we just move the "s" from the end of "Potatoes" and put it at the beginning of "Torch", presto!, we have "Potatoe Storch" > "potato starch".

Although the person responsible for the translation on this package mangled the English pretty badly, at least they didn't render fěnsī 粉丝 as "fans", which is what you'll usually get when you rely on a machine to translate it. Instead, they gave us "glass noodles", which is an alternative rendering for "(Chinese) vermicelli".


  1. Dick Margulis said,

    June 8, 2014 @ 1:50 pm

    Telephone dictation of "potato starch"?

  2. Brendan said,

    June 8, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

    A misheard "potato starch" sounds plausible to me.

    The one that's always made me scratch my head is from the menu at Chuanban (川办), the restaurant attached to the Sichuan provincial government's office in Beijing. As of 2009/10, the menu Englished 土豆絲 ("shredded/julienne potatoes") as "Murphy."

  3. Keith said,

    June 8, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

    I agree with Dick Margulis: the first thing I thought of was that "potato starch" had become "potato's torch".

    It would be nice to have a transcription and translation of the Korean that is directly above the "POTATOES GLASS NOODLES".

    I'm really bad at reading Korean brush-type fonts… it looks to me like "알 믈 잡 재", but that seems to make not much sense. A google-image search for that string turns up several pictures of food, so maybe there is something in it…

  4. Charles in Vancouver said,

    June 8, 2014 @ 5:17 pm

    Yeah I don't find this packaging particularly alarming because I'm already used to "glass noodles" as a fixed phrase in Chinese food, referring to noodles that are translucent (like glass) when served.

  5. Bobbie said,

    June 8, 2014 @ 5:18 pm

    Murphy potatoes consist of cold sliced potatoes baked in a cheese sauce. (You could also use shredded/ julienne potatoes.)

  6. Amy de Butiléir said,

    June 8, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

    Yes, "glass noodles" is a familiar phrase to me as well. So I wouldn't consider that part to be a mistranslation.

  7. Keith said,

    June 9, 2014 @ 1:07 am

    Like Charles and Amy, the term "glass noodle" is such a fixed term on food packaging that I've always accepted it without a second thought.

    For me, "glass noodle" seems as natural as is "angel's hair" as a translation for the "capelli d'angelo".

  8. George said,

    June 9, 2014 @ 5:36 am


    I'd never heard of a dish actually called 'murphy potatoes' until I read your comment but what Brendan saw on the menu probably has nothing to do with that.

    I have a set of flash cards for Chinese children learning English that I bought in Beijing about ten years ago (for use in the opposite direction in my case) that has pictures of various foodstuffs with the Chinese words (in characters and pinyin) and the English equivalents. And yes, you've already guessed it, the English word given for a potato is 'murphy'.

    Being Irish myself and having known various Murphys over the years with the oh-so-obvious nickname 'spud', I have always found this hilarious and I've often wondered what the precise process was that led to the mistake.

  9. George said,

    June 9, 2014 @ 6:06 am

    Forgot to mention that Google Translate does offer 'spud' as an option for 土豆, but not 'murphy', and while I can imagine going from 'murphy' to the idea of a potato, the trip in the opposite direction seems less obvious. I know that 'murphy' can be a slang word for potato but I don't think it's a widely used one. Or maybe it's more widely used than I realise?

  10. flow said,

    June 9, 2014 @ 7:31 am

    @Keith i'd read the Korean as 알뜰잡채; indeed, there's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japchae (http://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/%EC%9E%A1%EC%B1%84) for the 잡채 part. as for 알뜰, you get a lot of ghits concerning mobile phone plans, and then there's http://www.zkorean.com/dictionary/search_results?word=%EC%95%8C%EB%9C%B0, which suggests that 알뜰 means 'affordable'.

    so maybe this is a case of CheapJapChae.

  11. Neil Dolinger said,

    June 9, 2014 @ 7:53 am


    I have never seen that dish described as Potatoes Murphy. Potatoes O'Groton, yes, but nae Murphy.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 9, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    Keith has misread the somewhat scripty hangul. It’s 알뜰잡채. That’s the common name for this kind of noodles—in fact, if I’m not mistaken, the term may even be used as a brand name. (Not sure about that, though.)

    In any case, the word is a compound. 알뜰 is a native Korean word meaning ‘frugal’ or ‘precious’, and 잡채 is Sino-Korean 雜菜, which of course literally means ‘assorted vegetables’ but it’s most commonly used as the name of the most popular and common Korean dish japchae—you probably know it, since it’s on every Korean menu. (I love it, esp. the kind cooked in a stone pot.) In any case, the compound is idiomatically used as the name of these kinds of noodles. This particular package may have been manufactured in China, but the makers got the Korean right.

    —Oh, in reading down the comments, I see that “Flow" read the hangul right.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 9, 2014 @ 10:29 pm

    "Anyone who grew up in North Jersey and has been out at a local Italian restaurant has seen something "Murphy" on the menu, be it chicken, veal, or pork chops. To clarify, old-school Italian-american fare, which runs rampant in my North Jersey homeland, rests on 5 pillars of preparation, each boasting its own unique combination of ingredients:

    1) Picatta
    2) Francese
    3) Cacciatore
    4) Savoy
    5) Murphy.


    Traditionally, the "Murphy" presentation involves a pan-coddled thoroughly sauteed melange of vinegar, cherry peppers, onions, potatoes, and some sort of salt-cured meat, usually sausage, used as a "dressing" over anything from Chicken (on or off the bone), to Veal, to Double-Cut pork chops."

    From the blog Memoirs of an Ubereater.

    I don't think I've ever eaten in northern New Jersey, heard "murphy" used as slang for a potato, or known anyone nicknamed "Spud" for any reason.

  14. George said,

    June 10, 2014 @ 4:20 am

    @ Jerry Friedman

    On the Eastern side of the Atlantic at least, 'Spud' is pretty much the default nickname for people called Murphy (along the same lines as 'Chalky' for people called White). That may not be the case in North America, although at least one Spud, a character in the book and film 'Trainspotting', did make the crossing during the '90s.

  15. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 10, 2014 @ 8:52 am

    From Haewon Cho, the head of the Korean Language Program at Penn:

    I found that there is a Korean brand, 알뜰 당면 (al-tteul dang-myeon (RR); al-ttŭl tang-myŏn jap-ch'ae (MR) . 당면 (dang-myeon) is sweet potato (starch) noodles (a.k.a. cellophane (yam) noodles, glass noodles – dic.naver.com) and 잡채 (Japchae) is a stir-fried noodle dish made with sweet potato noodles (당면) and assorted vegetables. Not sure if 잡채 is served in a stone pot though.

  16. Michael Rank said,

    June 11, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

    From Oxford English Dictionary:

    Brit. /ˈməːfi/ , U.S. /ˈmərfi/
    Forms: 18– murfey (Eng. regional (south-west midl.), in sense 1), 18– murphey (in sense 1… (Show More)
    Etymology: < the widespread Irish surname Murphy.
    Categories »

    1. A potato.
    1811 Lexicon Balatronicum, Murphies, potatoes.
    1812 Murphy Delany's Feast 6 Next to the table came a Sheep's head hot, It's [sic] mouth with a murphy cramm'd, sir.
    1827 P. Egan Anecd. Turf 151 Mathews relished the Irish stews and murpheys with greater goût.
    1847 H. Melville Omoo lix. 227 The rich, tawny soil seemed specially adapted to the crop; the great yellow murphies rolling out of the hills like eggs from a nest.
    1857 T. Hughes Tom Brown's School Days i. vi. 127 She bakes such stunning murphies.
    1891 J. F. Soop Bobbins the Waif i. 9 If I could only have one good square sock at him with this here murphy!
    1896 G. F. Northall Warwickshire Word-bk. 154 Murfeys, potatoes. SE Worc. and elsewhere.
    1933 Bulletin (Sydney) 6 Sept. 20/2 There was a leakage from a sack of murphies brought ashore at Whangara.
    1975 Thames Star 18–21 Nov. 1/1 Mrs Ward's magnificent murphy is not however, destined for the cooking pot.

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