Qishan smell of urine yellow croaker

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Tom Hancock sent in this photograph of a poster seen yesterday outside a Shaanxi restaurant just inside Beijing's third ring road:

Here's the name of the dish they are advertising:

Qíshān sàozi huángyú 岐山臊子黄鱼

I won't attempt to translate it at one fell swoop.  It will be more prudent to work at it two characters at a time:  the first two first, the last two second, and the thorny middle two third.

Considering that this highly suspicious dish begins with the name "Qishan", the restaurant owner might find himself in hot water.  "Qishan", written with the same two characters, just happens also to be the given name of Wang Qishan, the dreaded Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, i.e., the hatchet man who is leading Xi Jinping's purge of the Chinese Communist Party (also referred to as an "anti-corruption campaign").  In my estimation, dour Wang Qishan is the second most powerful man in China, so it would not be a smart move to provoke his ire, especially since he has a well-deserved reputation for throwing people he doesn't like in prison at the drop of a hat.

Wang Qishan was born in Qingdao, Shandong, but his ancestral hometown is considered Tianzhen, Shanxi Province.  Qíshān 岐山 is a county in neighboring Shaanxi Province, so perhaps Wang Qishan has some connection with that place.  Since this is a Shaanxi restaurant, the Qíshān 岐山 at the beginning of the name of the dish must be referring to a style of fish particular to Qíshān 岐山 County in Shaanxi Province.  However, considering how ultra famous and feared Wáng Qíshān 王岐山 is nowadays, nearly every literate person who sees the name of this dish is probably also going to be thinking (if only subliminally) of the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

The last two characters are relatively easy:  huángyú 黄鱼.  This is Larimichthys crocea, in English called the croceine croaker, large yellow croaker, or just yellow croaker.

But what is this mysterious sàozi 臊子?

Google Translate doesn't know what to do with it, and just says "sào", while Bing Translator reduces that to "sao".  Baidu Fanyi gives "the smell of urine".

The problem arises because 臊 has two readings, first tone and fourth tone.  Read sāo it refers to the smell of urine or a fox.  This is an old meaning that has its roots in ancient texts two thousand and more years ago, indicating a rank, foul smell.  By extension, not long afterward it acquired the sense of "scandalous" (having an odorous reputation, as it were).  Read sào, 臊 can signify "minced /diced meat", so I thought that Qíshān sàozi huángyú 岐山臊子黄鱼 must be minced yellow croaker à la Qishan.

Wanting to confirm that surmise, I searched the internet for recipes and images of sàozi huángyú 臊子黄鱼.  Much to my surprise, what I saw were whole fish with thick sauce spread all over.

Back to the drawing board.

I then checked Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic), vol. 6, pp. 1384b-1385b and Hànyǔ fāngyán dà cídiǎn 漢語方言大詞典 (Unabridged Topolect Dictionary of Sinitic), vol. 5, pp. 7355a-7358a to see if there were any other meanings for sāo / sào 臊 than "smell of urine / fox; scandalous; minced / diced" that might be appropriate for a fish dish.  It turns out that, in dozens of topolects scattered across the length and breadth of China there are scores of the most disparate expressions based on sāo / sào 臊.  To list just a few of the meanings without giving the colorful Chinese expressions, we have "humiliate, insult; jest; give birth to, bear; satirize, ridicule; be out of luck; putrid / fetid meat; pungent food (such as that which should be avoided by Buddhists); gaudy; despicable; contemptible; filthy; dirty; treacherous; cheat; be sarcastic / ironic; bald(y); shy, bashful; make an ass / fool of oneself; part of the transcription of the Sanskrit word for parrot…", and I'm just getting started.  There are scores more of these topolectal terms that convey an astonishing range of connotations.

Most of these meanings are particular to the speech of a limited area.  Although many of them can be traced back to the early meaning of "rank / foul smell", I suspect that sāo / sào 臊 has also come to be a bit of a catch-all character to which one can attach morphemes with that sound (many of which have a negative or pejorative meaning) for which there are no known characters.

To return to the task at hand, none of these meanings seemed to fit yellow croaker à la Qishan.  So I had no choice but to ask some friends from China and to poke around a bit more on the internet.  It turns out that sàozi 臊子 is a type of sauce made from minced pork cooked with vinegar, red pepper, and many other seasonings.  It is described in detail and pictured on this Chinese wiki page.

Usually Shaanxi sàozi 臊子 is served on noodles, but here it is used as the flavoring for the fish.  So a better translation would be "yellow croaker with minced pork sauce à la Qishan".  Just be sure not to make any jokes about the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

[Thanks to Xiuyuan Mi and Jing Wen]


  1. Rubrick said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 1:51 am

    Cognate with Lapine embleer, perhaps…

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 2:34 am

    I am reminded of what HKers informally refer to as 瀨尿蝦 (laai6niu6haa1, mantis shrimp), eaten in HK and other places. 瀨尿 means "to pee in one's pants" or "to not be able to hold one's urine", and 蝦 means "shrimp". Everyone says that they are called that because they supposedly squirt liquid, but I haven't verified the details.

  3. Calvin said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 9:51 am

    I think 臊子 means "minced meat source", and it appears a very common "go-to" source for various dishes in Shanxi or even Sichuan area.

    Some links:

    First link is a recipe for 正宗陕西岐山臊子面 ("the original Shanxi Quishan minced meat source noodles"). So 岐山臊子 seems to be a style of minced meat source preparation, most likely predates Mr. Wang's coming to dominance.

  4. Calvin said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    I think 臊子 means "minced meat source", made with minced pork, egg, chili pepper, and other spices. It appears to be a very common "go-to" source for various dishes in Shanxi or even Sichuan area.

    Some links:

    First link is a recipe for 正宗陕西岐山臊子面 ("the original Shanxi Quishan minced meat source noodles"). So 岐山臊子 seems to be a style of minced meat source preparation, most likely predates Mr. Wang's coming to dominance.

  5. Mara K said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 11:07 am

    The Wikipedia page for Larimichthys crocea was not very informative. It describes the "yellow croaker" as a type of "croaker", and I had to keep reading to find the word "overfishing" in the article and figure out that croakers are a kind of fish. Alternatively, I could have clicked on the "croaker" link in the article, or simply been patient and continued reading this post.

  6. K Chang said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    Baidu Baike gave a different entry on saozhi, described it as minced meat with a lot of condiments including chili peppers, to be served over noodles, a primarily northern preparation. Wonder if Marco Polo tried exported that to Italy as spaghetti sauce?


    In another Baike entry, they described the saozhimien (sao zhi noodles)


  7. K Chang said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 11:58 am

    Come to think of it, there's a LOT of Chinese Instant noodles that have 肉臊 flavor


    It's usually translated as "minced pork" flavor.

  8. julie lee said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

    'Sāo / sào 臊 than "smell of urine / fox; scandalous; minced / diced….." '

    Thank you, Victor Mair, for explaining the name of the dish. All new to me.

    Re this word 'Sāo / sào 臊', I might add that when I was a college student years ago in Taiwan (and my schoolmates were almost all refugees from Mao's China), _sao_ meant "vulgarly, overtly sexy" in reference to some film stars or even to some girls on campus. It was a derogatory term, because we girls were supposed to be chaste and pure. It was the boys who had impure thoughts and were supposed to chase us. Since my schoolmates were from China Mainland, it was a term used there too ( at least before Mao took over). My Chinese friends still use _sao_ in this "I-am-purer-than-thou" sense. Of course the word has all the other usages too, as explained in the post.

  9. Chau Wu said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 3:15 pm

    In Taiwan, minced pork sauce is customarily written as 肉燥 bah-sò [baɁ so3] where 臊 is written as 燥. Rice covered with the sauce is a favorite dish of mine. See the Google images of the delicious dish:


    For a bowl of really good tan-tan noodle (擔擔麵) with the sauce, go to Tō· Sió-goát (杜小月) restaurant in Tainan City:


    I should stop now, my mouth is drooling.

  10. P'i-kou said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

    @julie lee

    I wonder if there's a connection with 骚 sāo 'disorder, wantonness' as in the (rather strong) insult 骚货 sāohuò (lit. 'lewd merchandise') 'lascivious woman'.

    There are other similar insults ending in huò 'merchandise'. 贱货 jiànhuò 'cheap merchandise' has a similar meaning, and is also close to just 贱人 jiànrén 'cheap person'; but, when we try the same trick with sāo, we get 骚人 sāorén meaning 'poet' instead (an allusion to Qu Yuan's poem Li Sao).

  11. K. Chang said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 6:09 pm

    @Chau Wu — personally, I just order in minnanyu: loh-mah-bang 魯肉飯 (yes, I know my transliteration sucks). I think there's a couple of those veteran's village food (眷村飯)restaurants in the San Jose Area now. Unfortunately the only choice in San Francisco is "Taiwan Restaurant" on Clement. And their food is only so-so.

  12. K. Chang said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 6:13 pm

    @P'i-kou — if I remember correctly, 骚货 sāohuò (lit. 'lewd merchandise') 'lascivious woman' was referring to the alleged "fox spirit" 狐狸精 that has the "foxy smell" 骚

  13. K. Chang said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 10:40 pm

    @Stephan Stiller, the mantis shrimp i.e. "peeing shrimp" 瀨尿蝦 can only be properly prepared if you use a toothpick to release some of its body fluids, else the shrimp tastes like… piss. At least that's what this HK article said.


    Peeing shrimp must have its bad tasting chemicals released from the body. Use a bamboo (skewer?) stick and insert it from the tail in to depth of approximately two inches, and the pee fluid will be released.

    Source http://hk.apple.nextmedia.com/supplement/food/art/20071022/10318254

    So perhaps the name is indeed from "holding it in".

  14. K. Chang said,

    May 23, 2015 @ 10:51 pm

    @Stephan Stiller, the mantis shrimp apparently will "pee" on any creature that "caught" it, so if they were harvested by hand (i.e. dug up from seabed) they will "pee" on the hand that caught them, and the pee apparently has some noxious chemicals. That's what the HK food website said:


    When mantis shrimp was caught, it will open the claws and spread out any body spikes, as well as release fluid from the tail, thus making people feel as if it just peed.


  15. Ben Hemmens said,

    May 24, 2015 @ 3:35 pm

    Sounds like something Leopold Bloom might have for breakfast.

  16. julie lee said,

    May 24, 2015 @ 7:11 pm

    @P'i-kou and @ K. Chang,

    Yes, I know the word 骚 sāo "wanton, lewd, lascivious". I have always associated it with 臊 sao, the smell, and I see that 骚 sāo "smell of fox", associated with the "fox spirit" temptress in folk-tales is, according to the Hanyu Da Cidian "Comprehensive Chinese Dictionary", alternately written with 臊 sao, which is in turn alternately written sao___ (same as 臊 sao but with a goat radical or determinant—this character is not in my laptop dictionary).

  17. P'i-kou said,

    May 25, 2015 @ 6:42 pm

    That would be (U+263DB). Very rare apparently.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2015 @ 11:10 am

    Julie Lee was right about sāo 臊 implying "frivolous; giddy; immodest; wanton", and that it is interchangeable with sāo 騷 in this sense. See sāo 騷, main definition #2, and sub-definition #4 and #5 here:


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