Punny cookbook

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Cover page of a cookbook published in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:

The big Chinese characters on the front cover say:

chī dòufu


"eat tofu / bean curd"

On the surface, that's what the expression normally means.  However, one should be careful how and when one uses it, since it often is a slang expression signifying:

to come on to someone; to make advance[s] to a woman; to flirt

This idiom usually only refers to a man taking advantage of a woman in a sexual situation.


For instance, if you say "Wǒ xǐhuān chī dòufu 我喜歡吃豆腐" ("I like to eat bean curd") when it's not entirely explicit that you are talking the food, you are more than likely to elicit polite sniggers or profound guffaws.

The definition given above is not exactly always the one that I have heard from women who have been subjected to such abuse.  An example of the type of disrespectful harassment women experience is for a man running by or riding a bicycle past a woman or in close, crowded quarters on a bus, subway, or elevator, and touching her in a soft spot that is off limits, hence the comparison to tofu (at least that's my etymology [as of today, December 2, 2021, missing from Wiktionary]).

As for "hanky-panky" (n.), also "hanky panky', it is an expression that has always intrigued me, although the etymology is uncertain.   According to Online Etymology Dictionary, it is British slang, dates to 1841, and signifies "trickery". Other dictionaries tell us that is possibly a variant of hoky-poky / hokey-pokey ("deception, fraud; illicit sexual activity / relations", perhaps altered from hocus-pocus.

I didn't know about the Wiktionary entry before today, but it makes a lot of sense:


Possibly a corruption of the Romani expression hakk'ni panki ("great trick", "big con" and hence "shady dealings").


hanky-panky (uncountable)

    1. Mischievous behaviour, dishonest or shady activity.
    2. Amorous behaviour, smooching, making out, necking, sexual intercourse or other sexual activity, especially if illicit.
    3. A debaucherous act; a sexual act that is considered inappropriate.

Thus we see that "eat beancurd" and "hanky panky", while both potentially involved with sexual deviance or dalliance, are rather different in effect.  "Eat beancurd", both in English and in Chinese, is a verb-object phrase describing an action, whereas "hanky panky" is a resultant action.  Act vs. action.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Derek Lin]


  1. Adam F said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 5:07 am

    I like tofu but I didn't know it was sexy.

    This reminds me of the time I asked someone who lived in Italy if "puttanesca" meant what I thought (based on French). He said yes, and to be safe you should only use the word if it appears on the menu (sometimes it's listed by the main ingredients instead).

  2. Alexander Browne said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 10:42 am

    OT re "puttanesca", I think this explanation from Rachel Roddy makes the most sense:

    There are various stories about the origins of spaghetti alla puttanesca; various translations, too: whore’s spaghetti, tart’s spaghetti; I have even heard it called lady-of-the-night spaghetti.

    As much as I like Neapolitan tales of seductively coloured clothes, satisfied customers and meals cooked between clients, the story that always comes into my mind is the hungry group rolling up to a trattoria late and demanding the owner “faccia una puttanata qualsiasi”. Now, in this context, puttanata translates as “a rubbish thing”, so you could translate this – clumsily maybe – as “make me whatever rubbish you have”.

  3. Bloix said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 3:20 pm

    A possible etymology for hanky-panky:
    it's from a street magician's disappearing trick – he holds an object in one hand, throws a hanky over it – after a little patter, pulls the hanky away, and – the object is gone!

  4. bks said,

    December 7, 2021 @ 5:31 pm

    @ Alexander Browne


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