Fry the red hand

« previous post | next post »

Maidhc Mac Roibin spotted this oddly named item on the menu (bottom right) of the Nutrition Restaurant in Cupertino, CA:

hóngyóu chǎoshǒu 红油炒手
(lit., "fried hand with / in red oil")

The English ("Fry the red hand"), of course, is ridiculous, but the Chinese itself is wrong.  It should be hóngyóu chāoshǒu 红油抄手 ("wonton [soup] with spicy sauce").

The erroneous wording on the menu, hóngyóu chǎoshǒu 红油炒手 (lit., "fried hand with / in red oil"), and the corrected wording, hóngyóu chāoshǒu 红油抄手 ("wonton [soup] with spicy sauce"), are nearly perfectly homophonous (except for one tone), and differ by only a single character:  chǎo 炒 ("[stir-]fry; saute") instead of chāo 抄 ("copy; transcribe; plagiarize; confiscate; seize", etc.).  The two characters differ by only a single stroke:  chǎo 炒 has a "fire" radical, while chāo 抄 has a "hand" radical.  Visually they are very similar.  As a matter of fact, the first few times I looked at the menu, I thought that I was seeing hóngyóu chāoshǒu 红油抄手 ("wonton [soup] with spicy sauce"), not hóngyóu chǎoshǒu 红油炒手 (lit., "fried hand with / in red oil"), because I expected to see the former, not the latter.

This very dish occurs as item #46 on the Sichuanese menu that we studied in this post:

"Wonton in Zanthoxylum schinifolium etzucc sauce " (5/6/15)

There hóngyóu chāoshǒu 红油抄手 is translated as "Wonton in hot chili oil".  Fair enough.  So far as hóngyóu 红油 goes, it literally means "red oil"; "hot chili oil" is an adequate rendering for that.  But the other part of the name is much more difficult to render:  the literal meaning of chāoshǒu 抄手 is "fold (one's) arms", a gesture of respect.  We find the expression with this meaning as early as the novel All Men Are Brothers OR Water Margin (latter part of the 16th century).

As a Sichuanese topolect word, however, chāoshǒu 抄手 (lit., "crossed hands", describing the way the dough skin is folded) refers to a type of wonton (meat-filled dumpling with a thin dough "skin").  Quoting from "Wonton in Zanthoxylum schinifolium etzucc sauce", chāoshǒu 抄手:

….also signifies "wonton" in Heilongjiang, parts of Shaanxi and Anhui, Wuhan, and other scattered locations in north and central China….  "[W]onton" [is] a topic that we have several times addressed on Language Log:

There are even more ways to write (and say) "wonton" in Chinese than there are in English ("wantan, wanton, wuntun", etc.), viz., MSM húntún, Shandongese húndùn 馄饨, yùntún 餫飩, Cantonese wɐn4tɐn1 雲吞, Minnan piánsi̍t 扁食, to name just a few.

To arrive at "fry the red hand", the translator would have had to be thinking chǎo hóngshǒu 炒红手 instead of hóngyóu chǎoshǒu 红油抄手, which requires quite a leap of rearrangement.  Otherwise, they simply were being extremely sloppy.  The real, initial mistake, though, lies with the person who wrote the Chinese, so it's not too surprising that the translator would come up with something wild.  However, if they were attentive and sufficiently knowledgeable, the translator should have realized that something was wrong with the original Chinese.


  1. Kaisa said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    Shouldn't 炒 be third tone? At least all my dictionaries say so.

  2. liuyao said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 4:58 pm

    In Beijing speech at least, 炒 is pronounced with the third tone. I did not catch the wrong radical at first either, which again illustrates that we parse the word or phrase as a whole.

  3. julie lee said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 5:04 pm

    Thank you so much for the post explaining the mistake in the character for chao "folded". I always read it as the wrong character chao "fried" because I never looked at the character on menus carefully. Always wondered what it meant. Thank you for the explanation.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

    @liuyao @Kaisa

    Thanks for catching that slip. I do a lot of cooking, so I know that 炒 should be third tone. I've fixed it in the post now.

  5. Lai Ka Yau said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 6:38 am

    Looks like whoever wrote the menu was caught red-handed!

  6. Jeff W said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 12:23 am

    I'm really glad you posted this.

    Years ago I used to often have that exact dish at the local Chinese [Cantonese] restaurant and I thought the name was 红油炒手 hung4 jau4 caau2 sau2. “Fried” seemed sensible enough but what exactly was that word “hand” doing there?

    The explanation that "抄手 (lit., ‘crossed hands’…) refers to a type of wonton” makes perfect sense. Mystery solved!

  7. Craig said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    "Crossed hands" makes me think of the origin of "pretzels" from *brachitella cf. "bracciatella", etc.

  8. John said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    I recently made the same error. I know the correct character is 'copy' as I pronounce it using the first/high tone, as did the other party on the occasion I had to write the name of this dish in characters. Yet I still managed to write 'fry' instead of 'copy', even though I know that 'fry' is pronounced with a rising tone (in Cantonese).

RSS feed for comments on this post