Urine meat balls

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Bob Ramsey sent in the following photograph of a portion of a Chinese restaurant menu (source; originally from engrish.com):

All of the English translations on this menu are problematic (or disastrous) in one way or another, and I will point out some of the main problems. The most spectacular fail, it would seem, is that we have to face the dire prospect of ordering rice noodles with "urinate beef boll" and "urinate fish boll". As will be shown, however, the translations of the names of these two dishes are closer to what the Chinese actually says than you might imagine.

First, a straightforward translation of each item:

yúguǒ fěn 魚果粉
("fish balls [?] with rice-flour noodles")

I honestly don't know what yúguǒ 魚果 (lit., "fish fruit") is. It's not something we normally encounter in MSM. At first I suspected that it might be Japanese, but I can't find it there either. In China, we do find some Rìshì yúguǒ 日式魚果 ("Japanese-style fish balls"), but — from the advertisements online — these appear to be packaged snacks, not the sort of dish that is on this menu. Since the term also shows up in Taiwan contexts, perhaps it is a Taiwanese expression, but I haven't been able to verify that.

The fěn 粉 in these recipes is mǐfěn 米粉 ("rice-flour noodles / vermicelli").

sāniào niúwán fěn 撒尿牛丸粉
("rice noodles with mantis shrimp and beef balls")

sāniào yúwán fěn 撒尿魚丸粉
("rice noodles with mantis shrimp and fish balls")

tèsè shíjǐn fěn 特色什錦粉
("rice noodles with special assorted ingredients")

Now, sāniào 撒尿 really does mean "urinate", but it is also short for sāniào xiā 撒尿蝦, more often called là(i)niào xiā 攋尿蝦, that is, the mantis shrimp. It gets its bizarre alternative name ("pissing shrimp") from a peculiar form of behavior that it exhibits when it is picked up.

From Wikipedia:

In Cantonese cuisine, the mantis shrimp is known as "pissing shrimp" (攋尿蝦, Mandarin pinyin: lài niào xiā , modern Cantonese: laaih niu hā) because of their tendency to shoot a jet of water when picked up. After cooking, their flesh is closer to that of lobsters than that of shrimp, and like lobsters, their shells are quite hard and require some pressure to crack. Usually they are deep fried with garlic and chili peppers.

In MSM, the mantis shrimp is called more prosaically xiāgū 虾蛄, but it has over a dozen other names, many of them quite colorful (and some of them slightly off-color!).

By the way, I am serious when I say that defense systems researchers, developers of armaments and weapons, and scientists who study vision should carefully examine the extraordinary characteristics and capabilities of the mantis shrimp (see several sections of this article). This is a living fighting machine.

My earthy Shandong friends used to say lāniào for "to piss" and lāshǐ for "to shit". Those expressions always sounded crude, if not vulgar, to me, and when I asked my friends to write them out, they always refused. Later, I discovered that the former is written as 拉尿 and the latter is written as 拉屎. Knowing how to write these expressions in characters didn't help make them sound any better to me, since they literally mean "to pull, draw out piss / shit". Those actions were hard for me to conceptualize until recently I saw my pet snail, Arnold, literally pulling a long string of poo-poo out of his anus (which is located near his neck) with his foot!

The sā 撒 of sāniào 撒尿 means "sprinkle; spill; scatter", while the là(i) 攋 of là(i)niào 攋尿 means "to clutch; to grab at; to rub or scrape; to tear; (Cant.) to leave behind, omit", hence I suppose one may think of it as "excrete". So far as I know, these usages for là(i) 攋 are found in Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew (Chaozhou). When I hear là(i) 攋 used this way, it always make me think of the lāniào 拉尿 ("to piss") and lāshǐ 拉屎 ("to shit") of my Shandong friends, but they are probably separate morphemes.

Be all of that as it may, sāniào niúwán 撒尿牛丸 ("mantis shrimp and beef balls") is a famous dish which you can read about here and here. When you eat these delicious meat balls, you simply have to block out the surface signification of their name and try to think of the formidable shrimp that went into them.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng]



23 Comments

  1. Jim Ancona said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    The mantis shrimp is known to marine aquarium keepers for its ability to break a glass aquarium with its powerful claw. They're also called "thumb splitters" for the damage they can do when handled incorrectly. I don't think I'd want to try to cook one.

  2. Brendan said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 5:57 pm

    The dish in question also plays the role of the MacGuffin in the antic Stephen Chow comedy 食神 (The God of Cookery), whose subtitles have it as the distinctly unappetizing "pissing beef balls."

  3. nic said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

    Don't often jump in here, but as a(n ex-)vision researcher, i can reassure you that a lot of people are paying very close attention indeed to the mantis shrimp.

  4. Felix said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

    Way back when, I worked on one of the first practical computer translators for court reporters / stenographers. It was strictly syllables, no grammar or anything fancy. It had a minimal look ahead, and if faced with a choice of 1 syllable now and 2 next tie, or two now and one next time, it chose two now.

    So, as we heard the story, a court reporter didn't proofread our translation as well as he should have, and the judge's remark that he'd "like to have your input on this problem" turned into he'd "like to have urine put on the problem".

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 11:02 pm

    Hilarious, but highly informative, comic on the mantis shrimp:

    http://theoatmeal.com/comics/mantis_shrimp

  6. Ø said,

    November 23, 2013 @ 11:57 pm

    I was attacked by a mantis shrimp years ago, before I ever heard of them. It was all very exciting. I disturbed it in its lair, and it dealt me a glancing blow and ran away.Then I went home and looked in a book to see what the hell that thing was.

  7. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 7:41 am

    And a funny but slightly less informative Youtube video on the mantis shrimp.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 8:08 am

    @Ginger Yellow

    A zillion thanks for that super funny video!

  9. June Teufel Dreyer said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    imagine, as the voice-over posits, that humans had eyes like this. What would nearsightedness glasses look like? Contact lenses?

  10. JQ said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

    In Cantonese, 攋尿 means "to piss in your pants", not "to pee" (which is o1尿 – the same sound as 柯 but I have never seen it written). Similarly 攋屎 means "to shit in your pants" /
    "to have diarrhea" and o1屎 just means "to poo".

  11. julie lee said,

    November 24, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

    I may be wrong, but I always thought yúguǒfěn 魚果粉 should be read as two words:
    yu 魚"fish" and guofen 果粉. I looked up online dictionaries but couldn't find yuguo魚果 as a word, or guofen 果粉 as a word.
    I thought guofen果粉 in names on Chinese menus here in California meant " rice noodles". Except the 果 is usually written with a "rice" radical.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 9:37 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    One thing missing from the discussion of laai6 niu6 haa1 in Cantonese is its metaphorical meaning, viz., "bed-wetting child, child who habitually pees in bed while sleeping; child who wets his pants"

  13. julie lee said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

    After some research, I think the yuguofen item, the first on the menu, means "fish with bean threads" or "fish with rice-flour noodles".

    I got this definition of guofen 果粉 from Baidu, the Chinese search engine,which says guofen means "bean threads made in Guomindang (i.e. Nationalist) Taiwan, not in Communist China". Guo 果in guofen粉果 is a pun for
    guo国 "national" in Guomindang (Nationalist)

    Another meaning of guofen 果粉 (literally "apple powder"), means "fan/fans of Apple products". This is because guo here is short for pingguo ("apple" in Mandarin) and fen (literally "powder") is a near-pun for the word "fan", so fen here means "fan".

    A third meaning of guofen is "fans of international football in Milan". (I accidentally deleted this third definition from below.

    The definition from Baidu is as follows:

    "果粉"什么意思?
    答:呃,简单回答就是苹果的fan啊,你问的应该是这个意思吧 其他还有(1)指苹果公司数码产品的狂热爱好者。与之相对的是"果黑"。 (2)果粉者,乃国民党之粉丝也,非中华民国之粉丝也。所以取其谐音,曰"果粉"。

  14. julie lee said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

    p.s. I meant to say guofen果粉 (on the menu) literally means "fruit powder", not "apple powder". The menu meaning is "bean threads" (noodles made of bean starch) or "rice noodles" (made of rice flour).

  15. Victor Mair said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    I thank Julie Lee for her heroic efforts in trying to figure out the meaning of yúguǒfěn 鱼果粉, but problems remain.

    This menu

    http://www.waimaitong.net/shops.php?uid=144&cost=15&distance=7.28&flag=0

    has yúguǒfěn 鱼果粉 and málà yúguǒ 麻辣鱼果 ("numbing and spicy fish balls [?]"), without any fěn 粉 ("rice noodles") at the end to complicate things, plus various mantis shrimp beef / fish ball dishes.

    The 11th picture here

    http://zhan.renren.com/yummybar?gid=3674946092063442443&checked=true

    shows what yúguǒfěn 鱼果粉 looks like.

    If we're dealing just with yúguǒfěn 鱼果粉, in terms of rhythm and parsing, yúguǒ-fěn 鱼果粉 works better than yú-guǒfěn 鱼果粉, but a lot of times on the web we find a verb, such as bǔ 捕 or dǎ 打 (both meaning "catch" in this context), preceding the yú 鱼, then the rhythm and parsing will shift to Xyú guǒfěn X鱼果粉, where X is a verb acting on yú 鱼.

  16. Jason Cox said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

    Slightly off topic, but my two favorite "earthy" phrases relating to shitting in Taiwanese are:

    1. 屎在滾 sái teh kún (shit is boiling), lit. one feels a liquidy bowel movement coming on. This is used all the time to suggest that something generally bad about is about to happen.

    2. 挫屎 chhoah-sái (diarrhea, or more colorfully "shaved/pulverized shit"). This is said either when something generally bad has just happened to oneself, or in response to hearing a disastrous story.

  17. julie lee said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 9:06 pm

    @Victor Mair:
    Yes, the first menu you supply does suggest yuguo is a word meaning "fish balls" since it is not classified under rice noodles or bean threads (fen). and yuguofen on the menu would mean "fish balls with noodles"

    However, there is a picture on the web of a dish of food called yuguofen "fish noodles" ( the first item on the menu in your post) which has no fish balls and no noodles or bean threads; it looks like crackers:
    http://www.dianping.com/photos/27021125/member
    (I got it by searching Baidu for 鱼果粉(yuguofen). It's on the first page).
    Perhaps yuguofen is a Taiwanese or Fujianese dish , which explains the Baidu dictionary's gloss of of guo as meaning "nationalist/Guomindang" or Taiwanese. And perhaps yuguo or guofen is a Taiwanese word.
    If yuguo mean fish balls, why does the menu (on waimaitong.net, which you supplied) have two names for "fish balls": yuwan鱼丸 and yuguo鱼果. Perhaps yuguo is Taiwanese-style fish balls?

  18. julie lee said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 2:41 am

    @Victor Mair:
    I just went back to Baidu search engine's 2nd definition of guofen and see that I misread it:
    (2)果粉者,乃国民党之粉丝也,非中华民国之粉丝也。所以取其谐音,曰"果粉"。
    Translated, this says: "(2) Guofen means fan(s) of the Guomindang (Nationalist Party), not fan(s) of the Republic of China. Guo is a pun, hence the word guofen". (Fen is short for fensi [bean thread], which is a pun for 'fans'."

  19. julie lee said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 4:10 am

    I think guofen 果粉 is another pronunciation of kefen粿粉 "rice noodles". So the menu item ("fish noodles") would be yu-guofen, not yuguo-fen. I find on several websites that kefen 粿粉 is another name for hefen河粉
    "rice noodles". For instance the following says kefen粿粉
    is made of rice:

    content.edu.tw/vocation/food_production/…/rice7.htm‎ :

    "… 濕磨法,乾磨法。磨出粿粉再加工,可以做成中國傳統點心。 不同米種做粿粉出的各類粿粉,性質皆不相同…"

    Kefen粿粉 is a name for rice noodles in Cantonese and Taiwanese/Fujianese. I think guofen果粉 is the Mandarin pronunciation of kefen粿粉. What looks like bean threads in internet pictures of yuguofen ( "fish noodles" in the menu in VHM's post) may be rice noodles even if they are translucent like bean threads because one website says rice-starch noodles can also be translucent. There are different kinds of rice noodles. I do remember seeing menus with the term kefen 粿粉 for rice-flour noodles in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  20. Peggy said,

    December 5, 2013 @ 4:06 am

    撒尿牛丸 and 撒尿鱼丸 are so named because they have a liquid center that, like the soup inside 小笼汤包, will "spray" if you are not careful biting into them. Hence, "pissing beef/fish balls".

  21. Amy said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 11:49 am

    I have a bit of a puzzle I haven't yet been able to crack. A few years ago, I was in Beijing for a conference, and at the hotel there were some buffet dishes on offer. They were all amusingly translated ("The Tomato Fries the Egg"), but the winner was something called "Jennifer Bacteria Fuel". None of us could figure out where it came from. The dish had potatoes and mushrooms in it, I think, so I suppose I can make the conceptual leap from mushroom/fungus to "bacteria fuel", but WHERE did "Jennifer" come from? Any thoughts?

    Sorry I can't recall what the actual characters were–I'm sure that would make the sleuthing easier.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

    @Amy

    I'd love to help you, but without the characters, it would be pretty much like stabbing in the dark.

  23. Chas Belov said,

    June 10, 2014 @ 3:17 am

    Speaking of unappetizing food names, Cantonese for catfish is 塘虱 tong4 sat1, or pond louse.

    So interesting and yet not surprising from Peggy's comment to learn that the translations (aside from "boll" for "ball") are actually spot on.

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