Green onion jaws of death

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Michael Kaan poses a tough question about how to make cōngyóubǐng 葱油饼 ("green onion pancakes"; lit., "scallion oil pancakes"):

I was watching a recipe on YouTube for one of my favorite Chinese snacks, con you bing, and I used Google's translate function to get the recipe in English (I watched it in Chrome and right-clicked to get it). As you can see in the attachment with screen shots [VHM: copied below], the fifth step in the recipe is quite technically elaborate: you have to use the Jaws of Death to twist the dough.

[VHM: because I'm in China, I can't see this or any other YouTube video — YouTube is completely blocked by the PRC authorities.]

My cooking skills are limited and I really don't want to purchase Jaws of Death just for one recipe. Is there something in the original Taiwanese Mandarin that I'm missing?

Michael's "green onion jaws of death" sounds mighty fearsome, but my wife was a master of this culinary delight, so I have seen it made dozens of times in my own kitchen and can reassure everyone that there is nothing to be afraid of about cōngyóubǐng 葱油饼 ("green onion pancakes") — except for the hard work of punching and smacking and repeatedly rolling out the dough and for the fact that it is truly a very oily business.

Here are the screen shots that Michael provided — my explanations follow.

Though the Chinglish translation is a sorry mess, I shall not provide an intelligible version of the whole recipe, simply because it would take more time than I have right now (watch the video closely, and I shall provide additional tips on how to make cōngyóubǐng 葱油饼 ["green onion pancakes"] and related snacks below). Instead, in this post I will focus only on the first clause of step 5: "the clenched jaws of death". The equivalent Chinese original reads: yǐ hǔkǒu niē jǐn 以虎口捏紧, for which a better translation would be "pinch tightly in the area between the thumb and the index finger". What? How did I arrive at that from yǐ hǔkǒu niējǐn 以虎口捏紧, which Google's translate function says means "the clenched jaws of death"?

The key to the answer lies in the meaning of hǔkǒu 虎口, which is indeed often translated as "jaws of death", but literally means "tiger's mouth". Henceforth in this post, I shall render it as "Tiger's Maw".

So just what is a hǔkǒu 虎口, aside from originally being a real "Tiger's Maw"? The noun hǔkǒu 虎口 ("Tiger's Maw") actually has a number of different significations. The one that is operative in the recipe under discussion refers to the angle or area of the hand between the thumb and the index finger. If one attempts to follow step 5 of the cooking instructions, one would tightly squeeze the dough with the hǔkǒu 虎口 ("Tiger's Maw") area of the hand and then break off a piece of it. However, Jiajia Wang informs me that she thinks the directions at this point are not entirely clear and that the word hǔkǒu 虎口 ("Tiger's Maw") has not been been used correctly. Rather, in her family they would do it this way: bǎ miàn jiā zài shǒu de hǔkǒu chù, mǔzhǐ shǐjìn, bǎ miàn qiā chéng xiǎoduàn 把面夹在手的虎口处,拇指使劲,把面掐成小段 ("clasp the dough in the Tiger's Maw area of the hand, and — pressing with the thumb — nip off the dough into small pieces"). Jiajia adds that the hǔkǒu 虎口 ("Tiger's Maw") is "a point on your hand, so you cannot niē jǐn 捏紧 ('pinch tightly') with only one point; you would need two points to niē jǐn 捏紧 ('pinch tightly') a thing."

For the sake of completeness, I should mention that the hǔkǒu 虎口 ("Tiger's Maw") of the hand is also important in Chinese medicine inasmuch as there is a vital acupuncture point there.

Unrelated to the hǔkǒu 虎口 ("Tiger's Maw") of the hand, the same term also refers to an asterism in Chinese astronomy, and it is also used in go (the board game) to denote being surrounded by the two sides of a triangle, as shown here.

By extension, hǔkǒu 虎口 ("Tiger's Maw") can be employed to indicate a dangerous position or situation, e.g., yáng rù hǔkǒu 羊入虎口 ("[like] a sheep entering a tiger's maw").

My mother-in-law (bless her soul!) used to make jiǎozi 饺子 ("dumplings" — yum yum!) that way (clamping the dumpling skins in the hukou of her hand — very quickly, skillfully, tightly, and beautifully. I, on the contrary, am reduced to pinching the edges of the skins clumsily between the tips of my fingers, with the result that they look awful and tend to fall apart when boiled. I used to watch my mother-in-law's effortless action, over and over and over again, but I could never duplicate it. In slow motion, it was something like this: she would first put the filling on the wrapper (skin), fold the wrapper with the filling into a half-moon shape, and then, deftly placing it between her hands, exert a forceful squeeze on the two sides of the wrapper with her two hǔkǒu 虎口 ("Tiger's Maws"), while letting her thumbs and index fingers rest along the edges of the wrapper. However, only people skillful at wrapping dumplings can do something so complicated as this. My mother-in-law was one of those people, and she could talk and laugh all the while. (It's sort of like the difference between being able to ride a bicycle and not being able to ride a bicycle, or like the difference between being able to swim and not being able to swim.) Mind you, she was a home economics teacher at the best girls school in Taipei.

For the hǔkǒu 虎口 ("Tiger's Maw") in action as a pastry preparation device, see the bottom left picture in item 9 here; it's just less than half the way down this long page.

So it turns out that Michael's mighty "green onion jaws of death", like the "fungus gnat turnovers" we encountered this past summer, is really nothing to be frightened of, and Michael doesn't need to run down to Chinatown to purchase Jaws of Death (something like Jaws of Life?) after all; he already has one on each hand.

[Thanks to Jiajia Wang, Zhou Ying, Zhou Yunong, Melvin Lee, and Jing Wen]


  1. Tom S. Fox said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 9:49 pm

    Have you tried using a proxy?

  2. Peter said,

    December 18, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

    My mom makes the best cong you bing, but I'm pretty sure all moms do (to their offspring). I'll have to show her this article.

  3. Andy Averill said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 12:17 am

    Victor, if you can't Google, can you bing?

  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 12:39 am

    The dough looks very elastic, not unlike strudel dough. Without understanding any of the conversation I can see that lard or vegetable shortening is spread onto the dough before the filling is added (strudel uses melted butter for this step) and that the experienced cook is explaining how you roll the dough out toward the edges rather than back and forth. The step that's a novelty to me is the way pieces are torn off after the dough is rolled up, then flattened before frying. It's remarkable how these techniques are common to very different cuisines–that chef could trade places with a pastry cook in Budapest and within ten minutes they'd both be producing up to standard. (The segment also observes one of the conventions of US cooking shows: the expert teaching the beginner, to illustrate that You Can Do This.)

  5. Max said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 1:23 am

    An English reference for the Go/Weiqi term can be found at the Tiger Mouth article on Sensei's Library.

  6. David J. Littleboy said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    FWIW, the Japanese classify the three go shapes at Max's link as completely different shapes. The first one isn't talked about at all, the second one is a kaketsugi (a hanging, or indirect, connection), and the third would be a warikomi (shoving in between). Go figure (pun intentional).

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    When I was little, another boy told me that in karate or kung fu, a blow with this part of the hand (to the throat, for instance) was called a "tiger's mouth". Is it possible that some boyhood belief about martial arts was true? And the mention of the tiger rather than any other animal seems especially appropriate for this fearsome strike—more so than for shaping pastries or acupuncture.

  8. Janice Byer said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

    Yummy – armed with the video and the recipe, I aim to venture to try this at home. It looks to me as if "…green onions, 1/2…." probably means 1/2 kg of green onions, i.e. a little over 1 lb. or 1 1/2 (1.5) North American cups, chopped.

    The idiosyncratic figurative use of English in the above Chinglish is delightfully poetic, imo. American and British recipes rely on nonliteral language, too, reflecting perhaps the folksy roots of food preparation, but, of course, convention renders the effect prosaic.

  9. Janice Byer said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 7:26 pm

    This klutz of a web surfer had, I figured, a snowflake's chance in cyber hell of translating the original recipe online, thus the hazarded guess above for the cryptic amount of green onions. Well, belated due diligence shows what I don't know.

    Professor Mair, please correct me if I'm still wrong, but I believe what the recipe calls for is
    a half handful of chopped green onions. Thanks!

  10. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

    @Janice Byer:

    I hadn't thought about the amount of chopped green onion–I sort of figured it was one of those "as much as is enough" recipes. I note she leaves an uncovered edge to seal the rolled-up pastry with, also standard practice with strudel.

  11. Stephen Anderson said,

    December 19, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

    Surely Penn makes it possible to use VPN to connect from China as if you were back in Philadelphia. I had no trouble getting to YouTube, FaceBook, etc. all the time I was in Beijing…

  12. Janice Byer said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    Rootlesscosmo, you're right. The joy of cooking, as opposed to the fun of baking*, is the proportioning of ingredients is usually common sense with personal taste the rule. Still, what intrigues me yet is the mystery of the missing calibre for "…green onions, 1\2…".

    * Baking, as you know, and myself from the school of hard biscuits, is apt to rise and fall on ingredients being properly proportioned so as to chemically react…or not

  13. Terry Collmann said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 6:05 am

    I am amused to see that Google Translate has 葱油饼 as "green onion pancakes" but 葱油 on its own as "scallion", thus using first the North American and then the Irish/North of England names for what I as a Southern English dweller would call a "spring onion".

  14. Vijay John said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 8:21 pm

    Janice, your second guess was right. The original Chinese says 1/2 of a handful of green onions. Perhaps the reason why "handful" ended up not being translated is because the word for handful, 把 bǎ, is often used as a classifier. (For example, 'one' is 一yī, and 'chair' is 椅子 yĭzi, but 'one chair' is 一把椅子 yī bǎ yĭzi). Also, in other cases, 把 bǎ is not translated at all (since it's basically part of a construction that allows you to front a definite object), as in Jiajia Wang's instructions mentioned above: 把面夹在手的虎口处,拇指使劲,把面掐成小段.

    I'm still kind of curious about how 虎口 came to mean 'part of hand between thumb and index finger'. I think Jerry might be on to something with the karate reference. My guess is that it was originally used to mean that part of the hand used in karate (or perhaps the associated blow), then it came to mean that part of the hand in general, then it was borrowed into Chinese (just like many other character loans from Japanese into Chinese).

  15. Alan Shaw said,

    December 21, 2011 @ 4:01 am

    They're scallions in New York as well.

  16. Dakota said,

    December 21, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    I just watched a YouTube (of Egyptian soldiers beating a woman with truncheons) blocked here in Saudi Arabia that someone had posted on Facebook. (if you need to know)

    Proxies are the first thing they block, also Tor. The only thing that works here is said to be VPN.

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