Whenever my mother has the opportunity to go to Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even Washington, D.C. whether on vacation or business trips, she often would come home with plentiful of traditional Chinese Food Ingredients that she may or may not use. On her last trip to Washington, D.C., she bought home five pounds of Chinese goose liver sausage! Or was it duck liver? I know most of you are probably feeling slightly nauseated just hearing the name but I tell you, it is delicious.
You see, once in a while, my mother would get these cravings where she suddenly wants to cook traditional Chinese specialties that she missed having in her childhood years. She would go to the market and get all kinds of special Chinese ingredients and stock them in the pantry and then oh maybe a year or two later, she would realized it was time to reorganize the pantry and goes on a rampage and throw anything that had gone bad away. Those ingredients that were lucky to survive, she would use them on special occasions like Chinese New Year or 春节 (Chūn jié), Dragon Boat Festival or 端午节 (Duān wǔ jié), and maybe, just maybe Mid-Autumn Moon Festival or 中秋节 (Zhōng qiū jié).
Sometimes, when mother’s not here and I like a nice clear broth or soup, I would go through some of these ingredients. Oftentimes, some of these ingredients would get me scratching my head wondering why did they named that. I would often wonder “Why do they call it that in Chinese?” Another wonderful question I ask myself when looking at these names is “Now, I know technically I spent less than half of my life in China but I am not at the point where I don’t understand basic Chinese words.” Well, below are three of the many ingredients that puzzle me just by looking at the name.
Dried Mussel or 淡菜(Dàn cài)
Yesterday, my mother asked me to make her a traditional Chinese porridge or 稀饭 (Xī fàn) using a new ingredient I have never heard of called 淡菜 (Dàn cài). I scratched my head and wondered, what the heck is that? Is that anything like 菜干(Cài gān), dried vegetables? I asked my mother and she showed me the package. It turned out, it’s not even real vegetables. It’s dried mussels. Why can’t they just use the Chinese term for mussels (青口 (Qīng kǒu)) and then just add the Chinese term for dried (干 (gān)) at the end instead of calling it 淡菜, which mean light vegetable, by the way.
Dried Aniseed or 八角(Bā jiǎo)
The second ingredient she leaves laying around is dried Aniseed or 八角(Bā jiǎo). The Chinese term for Aniseed means “eight sides or corners” although the last time I peeked at the package, most of it only has six or seven corners. Maybe it had eight sides when it was first packed and some of it just fell off but it looked highly unlikely. My mother bought it at an Asian supermarket about a year ago and she never opened it. So I have no idea what it’s for, probably for a soup or something. At least that’s what I heard.
Rice Cakes or 年糕 (Nián gāo)
The third and final ingredient is Rice Cakes or 年糕 (Nián gāo). In Chinese, this mean “Annual Cake” and it is actually true, we only eat this on Chinese New Year (春节(Chūn jié)). The English translation is mainly based on its ingredients, rice and water. The reason I am puzzled with this ingredient is that it looks nothing like the rice cakes I’ve had for Chinese New Year even though my mother has never even opened the package. I am pretty positive that it won’t turn out like this.
When the package looks like this…
Or perhaps they are meant to be stir-fried…
I have no idea, maybe I am just officially confused. Sometimes the same thing can mean different things in Chinese. All I know is after understanding exactly what it means in English, it still makes little sense.
What are some of the most confusing yet interesting Chinese ingredient names you have ever heard? I’d love to hear it.