Chicken framework / rack / skeleton / trunk / carcass / whatever

« previous post | next post »

Michael Robinson recently went to an interesting Toronto restaurant called Ten Mile Aroma, whose menu can be found online here.  Micheal's attention was drawn to these two menu items:

137. Fried Spicy Chicken Framework (làchǎo jījià 辣炒鸡架)
138. Chicken Racks with Soya Sauce (jiàng jījià 酱鸡架)

According to Michael, a reviewer who visited the restaurant commented that he asked about the Chicken Framework and got the reply "Just bones, no meat".  Michael says he's sure that he saw someone order one of these, and they brought a plate of chicken bones over to him.

Neither from the Chinese term itself nor from the English translations (both on the menu and online) is it very self-evident just what is at issue here.  Why would anyone want to order a plateful of chicken bones?

It's only the last two characters that are causing a problem in menu items 137 and 138; they are jījià 鸡架, where jī 鸡 means "chicken" and jià 架 is short for gǔjià 骨架 ("skeleton") or jiàzi 架子 ("frame[work]; shelf; carcass; stand; rack").

So, when it comes to Chinese cuisine, what, after all, does jījià 鸡架 signify?  Michael says that the Ten Mile Aroma restaurant specializes in northeastern Chinese cuisine, but that's not much help when it comes to figuring out what a jījià 鸡架 is in Chinese cooking.  I asked some of my Chinese friends and students from the northeast what jījià 鸡架 meant to them, and they didn't give me a definitive answer.  I then inquired of Angela (Tan  Yan) Chang, a master chef, what she does with a jījià 鸡架, and she says the only use she knows is to boil it for soup stock.  I've actually seen her do that, and have eaten various delicious dishes that she has made with the broth from a jījià 鸡架.

If you search online for Chinese dishes made with jījià 鸡架 or jījiàzi 鸡架子 (the extended form of the term; -zi 子 is a noun suffix), you get an amazing assortment of concoctions where it is used with winter melon, cabbage, noodles, bean crud / curd, and all sorts of other ingredients, made savory by cooking in various ways with a variety of spices, herbs, condiments, and so on.

For Ben Zimmer, there's even a gōngfu jījià 功夫鸡架 ("kung fu chicken whatever"); see this Language Log post for the origins and diverse meanings of the term gōngfu 功夫, AKA "kung fu" in English.

When all is said and done, however, what is a jījià(zi) 鸡架(子)?  Put simply, it is the main body of the chicken without the head, neck, wings, and drumsticks.  That sounds very much like a carcass, which may be defined as the dead body of an animal, especially one that has been slaughtered for food, with the head, limbs, and entrails removed.  But I don't think any English speaking person would feel good about being served a carcass for lunch or dinner, so that's not a viable option as a menu translation for jījià(zi) 鸡架(子).

No matter what, a jījià(zi) 鸡架(子) still has plenty of meat on it, so if anybody serves you a dish with jījià(zi) 鸡架(子) as its main ingredient and all they give you is a pile of chicken bones, you can tell them to take it back.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng and Rebecca Fu]


  1. Alexander Clark said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    In Thailand one often finds deep fried chicken carcasses; and chicken cartilage (nankotsu) is a fairly standard part of the Japanese grilled chicken repertoire (yakitori).

  2. Brad K said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 10:05 am

    What a treat to see Language Log turn its attention to a place where I spent far too many blurry hours in my student days! I wonder if you have any insight as to where the name of the restaurant came from. The staff haven't been forthcoming. Is it a cultural reference? Some original poetry on the part of the owners? Presumably there's a bit more to it than an implication that one can smell their food in Mississauga.

  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 11:21 am

    @Brad K: It's the name of a plant, the orange jessamine, jasmine orange or mock orange (which is also called Yueju 月橘, Moon orange, in Chinese), the name presumably coming from its strong fragrance. There is a confusing range of "N-mile fragrant" plants in Chinese: this plant (or other members of the genus Murraya are also called "Nine-mile fragrant" and "Seven-mile fragrant"; the latter name is also used for rue.

  4. julie lee said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 11:56 am

    When my Chinese schoolmates and I came to America many years ago, we were dismayed to find Americans liked large slices of meat on their plates, such as beef steaks, fish steaks, chicken breast. In the Chinese cooking we were used to, this food would be sliced, diced, cubed, shredded, or minced, usually mixed with vegetables. The top piece of chicken at a Chinese meal is the drumstick, not the breast, which seems to be the top piece at American dinners, served sometimes at banquets. At a Chinese dinner, the host offers the drumstick as the piece of honor to the guest of honor, or to the most revered person at the table such as an aged parent or relative (unless the hierarchy of chicken pieces has changed in Mao's China). I had an elderly aunt who was always offered the wing only because she thought that the best, though not the highest, piece. Some Chinese think the neck the best. We Chinese, at least my folks and our friends, love bony pieces. We love to nibble on bones. We find a big slab of meat on the plate uninteresting, a wasted opportunity. The "chicken framework" dish sounds inviting to me. Sumimasen (excuse me sorry thank you).

  5. BobC said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    How about we call it chicken torso?

  6. CuConnacht said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

    Re: framework

    "Frame" is the standard word for what is left after a large fish (salmon, cod, etc) is filleted. Head attached to backbone with attached bones and some meat, tail. They are usually sold pretty cheaply for soup.

  7. Lugubert said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 6:02 pm

    "Chicken bones" etc. reminds me of a restaurant in Xinjiang. My orally multilingual friend and I arrived late at a youth hostel in (Kashgar, or Ürümqi?), and were hungry. Tried the nearest (native…) restaurant. The server wasn't too comfortable with Standard Chinese or Cantonese, so we tried to make sense out of the printed menu. One dish was 牛something (we hadn't brought a dictionary). OK, beef looks useful; staff couldn't explain exactly what it was. Some quite solid things were brought, without any noticeably eatable meat parts or whatever on them. Back at the hostel we consulted our dictionaries. Hooves! 牛蹄?

  8. jeffrey reeder said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 6:08 pm

    @julie lee
    That's interesting. It seems that the preference you describe is still valid, and indeed, exists in several other parts of the world, leading to a whole global chicken economy symbiotic balance. See

  9. julie lee said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 8:54 pm

    @jeffrey reeder,
    Thanks for not taking my comments amiss. Also thank you for the most wonderful article on white and dark chicken meat in, which I've just read.

  10. Martha said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 9:39 pm

    julie lee – My entire life, I've immediately passed my chicken bones to my (Filipino) mom's plate after I'm done with them. She also loves to nibble on the bones and insists the rest of my family leaves "lots" of meat on them.

    (Which is a point missing from the article jeffrey reeder posted; it's too much work to eat a drumstick! I prefer to buy chicken breasts because there's no bone to deal with. If they sold deboned drumstick meat, in pieces the size of cutlets, it would make no difference to me.)

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 9:43 pm

    From Gene Anderson:

    Sort of like the "feast of salmon backbones" traditionally a big deal among Northwest Coast Native Americans. Sounds awful, but it's what's left over when you fillet the salmon (for smoke-drying the fillets for storage)–the best meat is left on the carcass, so you boil it and it makes a great feast.
    If you can check the Los Angeles Times on line there is a funny article yesterday by their reporter Julie Makinen about being posted to China and having to get a Chinese name. Lots of vicissitudes and she learned a lot on the way. My Chinese name is An Desen, peaceful and virtuous grove, which is cool because it allies me to An Lushan. No doubt an ancestor of mine.

  12. Michael Robinson said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 1:32 am

    Brad K is alluding to the fact that this restaurant is supposed to have the cheapest beer in all Toronto.

    Bruce Rusk: Thanks, very interesting.

    The chicken bones that I saw being served had little in the way of meat on them, but if you were a bone-nibbler you could probably get something. My wife and I are both bone-nibblers; the part of a chicken we fight over is the back. But seeing it in a restaurant seemed unusual.

    We ordered the lamb hotpot and we got a big bowl of assorted lamb bones that you had to pick up and gnaw. Plenty of meat on them though.

    I tried the very inefficient technique of running a search in Chinese on 辣炒鸡架 and translating the results. Here a few of the cryptic results:

    Oh, for the first time do not dare to buy too many chicken bones.
    Precautions: Do not fry too far Kazakhstan.
    This is really dark cuisine.
    Dish spicy appetizer, very underground meal.
    Many people think that cheap chicken bones, no meat, eat up not fun. This thing can not children that like to eat people naturally understand.

    I take the last to mean "children cannot understand why people would think eating chicken bones is not fun".

    There is a related English term. I was reading a biography of Sir Walter Scott and it said one of his favourite meals was "broiled bones". When I searched on that term I found a lot of references from 19th century British works. As best I could figure out it means something like what we would nowadays call short ribs.

  13. julie lee said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 1:59 am

    There are some recipes for cow hooves and discussions on the internet (Google search).
    It seems the food is in the marrow. I think Samuel Pepys's diary of life in 17th century England mentioned his ordering a plate of bones at taverns, and I wondered what they consisted of.

    Yes, I did meet a young Chinese man who said he didn't like bony pieces of chicken because they were too much trouble. There is that aspect too.
    However, I was amazed to read (in the New York Times or somewhere) that there is a tremendous business in exporting chicken and duck feet to China where they are delicacies. Huge profits because these items used to be thrown away by poultry producers in America.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 8:17 am

    When my wife, Li-ching, first came to the United States in the mid-1960s, there were many foodways that she couldn't comprehend. Among them, two that she often repeated later on were:

    1. her buying buttermilk by mistake and complaining to the store manager that it had gone bad (i.e., sour); she couldn't imagine that it would be somebody's (namely my) favorite drink!

    2. the fact that grocery stores would throw away chicken hearts! — she would get them from the butcher shops for free or next to nothing, and make them into the most incredibly delicious dish, which was one of the main reasons I married her

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 9:09 am

    Yesterday for lunch I went to a Japanese noodle shop in Center City Philadelphia called Nom Nom Ramen.

    It is small and unpretentious, but the food is some of the best I've ever eaten. Their soft noodles are custom made in New Jersey, but the secret of their ramen dishes is the broth, which is made by simmering tonkotsu (pig bones) in huge pots for up to three days, then adding various combinations of miso, salt, spices, soy sauce, and so forth. The result is an incredibly rich and flavorful soup that is supremely satisfying to the palate and throat.

  16. Andrew Bay said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 9:39 am

    Is there any chance the "Rack" on the chicken is the breast/white meat?

  17. CuConnacht said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 9:52 am

    Devilled bones, from a 1905 Australian cookbook:

    bone from a lamb roast
    cooked chicken bones
    1 tsp mustard powder (or to taste)
    30g butter
    cayenne pepper
    salt to taste

    Chop the bones to a medium size and score them with a knife. Mix the mustard powder with the butter, cayenne pepper and salt to taste. Rub this mixture into the scores you have made on the bones. Grill the bones until hot and then sprinkle a little more melted butter over them.

  18. Cecilia Segawa Seigle said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    I've learned that bones from a lamb roast, pork roast, Thanksgiving Turkey, cooked chicken bones, all make wonderful stock, though I don't cook at all now. I found everyone's comment fascinating and enlightening, especially julie lee's description that the top piece of chicken at a Chinese meal is the drumstick, not the breast – that I did not know. Thank you.
    However, I would like to tell you that it's not only the Chinese or Japanese who love chicken bones. This was a long, long time ago – before any of you were born.
    When I was a teenager in Japan, an American officer's family (part of the Occupation Forces) befriended me and I was at their home quite often. One day I saw their darling little boy (maybe a little over 2 yrs old?) appeared with a big chicken bone – I guess a drumstick? It was without any meat any more, but he kept licking and chewing on it for hours. I was simply amazed because the bone looked delicious the way he chewed on it. Maybe he was teething, but he made me hungry for a chicken bone on that day.

  19. Mark said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 1:26 pm

    I guess if I had to translate it I'd use "torso".

    Also, this leads to a joke: "What do you call a chicken with no wings, legs, or head?"


  20. julie lee said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

    @Victor Mair:
    A schoolmate of mine back had a similar experience years ago. He loved beef gristle (cartilage, tendon), which is often included in Chinese stews, or boiled and cut into thin slices and flavored with soy sauce, sugar, and sesame seed oil—a delicious cold dish.
    He went to his butcher (in Ohio) and spent a long time describing in his poor English what he wanted. Finally the butcher went to the back, rummaged in the garbage, and got some beef gristle for him. My friend told the butcher not to throw away the gristle in the future but keep them for him. The butcher was astonished.
    Thanks for the bones recipe. Now I have an idea of what "I dined on a plate of bones" means.

  21. David B Solnit said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

    This partially explains an experience my wife and I had travelling in Burma in 1988. Somwhere upcountry (maybe near Pagan), we wanted to have a beer in the afternoon so we went to the local fancy hotel, which of course in those days was not all that fancy but had that dilapidated formerly-colonial charm that I suspect the Burmese are now glad to be seeing the last of…
    We were told that we couldn't order beer without also ordering food. The food menu was short and included three chicken items of which the cheapest was "Chicken Bones." Sure enough, it was cooked (grilled?) chunks of bone with bits of skin and tendon adhering to it. It's been a standing joke for us ever since–how to serve "food" to without serving anything edible–but now I see that some customers may actually have consumed (some part of) them.

  22. Dave Cragin said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 6:38 pm

    One of the things I like about this language log is that seemingly simple topics can ignite interesting discussions. For me, this was one.

    I asked Ying, a native Shanghainese friend, about the bone dish. She had never heard of just serving bones, but she did offer some interesting language and insights on the topic. I had mentioned to Ying that Chinese friends had said “meat near the bone is more flavorful.”

    She disagreed. She said “meat near the bone is not more flavorful, but more tender because when the animal was alive, this muscle moved more. This kind of meat is called huo rou 活肉 , literally “live meat”, but hou ruo really means “tender meat.”

    On the other hand, she noted breast meat is called si rou “死肉 or literally “dead meat.” However, in keeping with the Chinese dislike of saying “death”, she said they don’t actually verbally say “si rou,” but she said everyone knows it is.

    Similar to Julie’s comment, Ying said that the chicken wing is the best because it is “live meat”, but you wouldn’t serve it to a guest because it has too little meat. However, a leg is also huo rou and as a result, something good to give to a guest.

    Lastly, she mentioned that her brother has always preferred breast meat, despite being born & raised in China. As a result, the family called him Meiguoren 美国人 (American). What fun!

    (Ying's comments above apply to chicken, duck and goose).

    (Julie: I always like your pre-/post-Mao comments).

  23. Treesong said,

    January 13, 2014 @ 10:14 pm

    @Dave Craigin: There's a similar saying I've encountered in English: 'The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.' I never noticed such a thing and thought it might be metaphorical; guess it's just my weak taste buds.
    I'm with the Chinese–why would anyone prefer dry tasteless breast meat?

  24. julie lee said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

    Dave Cragin,

  25. ShadowFox said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

    If you check the Momfuku cookbook, you will notice a recipe for tare (teriyaki base). It involves roasting chicken carcasses, particularly the rib part, which is notoriously hard to scrub off all the meat. But it's still little more than secondary processing, just like broth or stock or soup (even pho, which can be made with chicken carcasses too).

    For primary cooking, consider what happens to unclipped chicken wings when they are properly roasted. They turn into crispy crunchy chicken crackers, bone and all. The big hollow bones don't work the same way, but let me suggest a couple of possibilities. First, you can deep-fry coated chicken ribs and they turn into a potential crunchy snack. Another possibility is turning wing "drumettes" into lollipops–disointing the meat from one end and pulling it together over the other end, then deep-frying the whole thing. Another possibility is taking the entire chicken rib rack left over after the legs and breasts have been stripped, along with the breastbone, and roasting them, teriyaki stile until crispy. The little fat and other tissue that's left on the bones caramelizes quite nicely, so it's an alternative to BBQ ribs (although considerably less meaty). Again, only the joint on the big hollow bones becomes crunchy and edible this way, while the hollow bones, the breastbone and the spine remain hard and ungiving.

    On different incarnations of Iron Chef, Morimoto fried large scales (giant carp?) and large rib bones of fish (including salmon) to turn them into crackers. I tried roasting salmon bones with some flesh on them with mixed success–the amount of work required to make them edible was unreasonable compared to the satisfaction from eating them.

  26. ShadowFox said,

    January 14, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

    Momofuku, not Momfuku–didn't notice the typo.

  27. hanmeng said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 5:35 am

    @Dave Cragin, "she noted breast meat is called si rou “死肉 or literally “dead meat.” However, in keeping with the Chinese dislike of saying “death”, she said they don’t actually verbally say “si rou,” but she said everyone knows it is."

    My Taiwanese SO has always referred to "死肉" as "死肉". I couldn't understand what she meant until she gave me examples. On the other hand, she doesn't use the phrase "活肉".

    For my part, I like chicken kidneys, but I've only found them embedded in the back, never sold or served separately.

  28. mcnugget said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 3:04 pm


    There was a warning about cadmium in chicken kidneys some years ago. You can google "chicken kidney cadmium" to get some information on it.

  29. Dave Cragin said,

    January 15, 2014 @ 10:40 pm

    Hanmeng – It's interesting that a similar idea on "dead meat" exists in Taiwan.

    To give you some piece of mind about kidney eating: I'm a toxicologist and I teach health-based risk assessment both in the US and China. It is true that kidneys can store cadmium. However, eating an occasional kidney won't give you overexposure to cadmium.

    A much bigger issue, that has been reported in both the Chinese press and the WSJ, is cadmium in rice. People do eat rice every day. As result, China is grappling with how to solve this problem (a topic too complex for this blog). In contrast, if you're living in China and eating the rice (who doesn't?), I would skip eating the kidneys or eat them only occasionally.

  30. mcnugget said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 11:35 am

    Dave Cragin:

    Language Log is wonderful. Its readers include specialists in all sorts of languages and all sorts of fields. Yahoo News reported very recently that white rice has trace amounts of lead, but that eating it now and then, as Americans do, is fine. But Chinese eat it every day. It also said brown rice has more lead than white rice. Many Chinese-Americans now usually eat brown rice instead of white. The article didn't mention how often it was safe to eat brown rice. Could you give us a few words on lead in white rice and brown rice?

  31. Dave Cragin said,

    January 16, 2014 @ 9:56 pm

    The main lead concerns seem to be from a preliminary report conflicted seriously with the findings of others. The BBC notes "preliminary independent checks on the findings have failed to replicate the results, and tests suggest the equipment used may have been to blame." A Dutch study found lead levels 1/1000th of that reported – and not of concern.

    Overall, be careful about these kinds of studies. Lead exposures in the world were historically far higher when cars around the world spewed lead from gas. Japan & the US phased out leaded gas starting in 1973 and the EU did so in 1998. As a result, lead levels now generally are much lower than they once were.

    In the US & EU, I wouldn't worry about trace levels of metals in rice (or food in general). Now back to interesting discussions on language…

  32. mcnugget said,

    January 17, 2014 @ 10:58 am

    Dave Cragin,
    Many thanks.

RSS feed for comments on this post