The Hidden Meanings Behind the Names of Your Favorite Foods

Lots of us talk about food without ever thinking about where the names come from. Nun’s farts, cat’s tongues, and burritos are just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce!). The world is full of far more creative, descriptive, and boldly named foodstuffs.

A picture of a cheese soufflé in a ramekin on a plate with a spoon, beside a picture of 2 men talking, one with a cloud of smelly breath.
: Lisa Linder

If you’re an adventurous eater, a linguistic enthusiast, an inimitable traveler, or all of the above, you may already know that “orecchiette” means “little ears” in English and “amuse-bouche” translates literally to “amuse the mouth.” But did you know that “soufflé fromage” means “cheese breath”? Or that the actual translation for your beloved “burrito” translates to “little donkey”?

If you’re a foodivore like us and a word nerd like, ahem, some of us, you can’t help but be intrigued by food names whose actual meanings are poetic, outrageous, even sometimes hilarious. While some things might get lost in translation or have an unfortunate nomenclature—witness the Jell-O’ish dish known in German as “Wackelpeter” (“wiggle Peter”)—most of it is, at least, entertaining.

A divine dinner

Religious themes abound throughout various cultures and their foods. Take the Italian pasta “strozzapreti,” an elongated version of cavatelli, which is to say, a hand-rolled, hollow noodle that looks a little like a twisted hot-dog bun. Its name, unfortunately, means “priest strangler.” There are varying histories about where the moniker came from, but it’s generally acknowledged that women made the pasta for gluttonous priests who just couldn’t get enough of it. It’s safe to say that the Catholic church probably prefers “fedelini,” the Ligurian pasta that closely resembles angel hair and translates to “little faithful ones.”

In China, “fó tiào qiáng” (“Buddha jumps over the wall”), is made with shark’s fin, steamed abalone, quail eggs, and fish maw. It’s a complicated and labor-intensive dish that’s considered to be such a delicacy, even the vegetarian Buddha himself would want to jump over a wall to eat it.

“Imam Bayildi” is a Turkish dish that translates to “the Imam fainted.” There are several accounts given as to why a religious man would be so overwhelmed by an eggplant stuffed with onion, garlic, and tomatoes and simmered in olive oil. The most popular theories surmise that he either couldn’t handle the sensual overload or it could have just been the general pre-emoji-era suggestiveness of a big ole eggplant.

What you see is what you get

Craving something a little less obtusely named? Some gastronomic translations are pretty straightforward. Like the delightfully named German “Laubfrösche” (tree frog). These stuffed spinach rolls do indeed bear a striking resemblance to their bright green, cute-as-heck namesake.

If you find that to be more ghoulish than moreish, you’re probably not going to be too thrilled about “vermicelli” (“little worms”). What? You thought all Italian pasta had cutesy names like “tortellini” (“small cakes”) or “farfalle” (“butterflies”)?

A pic of dry farfalle noodles with a picture of brightly coloured butterflies next to it.
: Tim Ur Deposit Photos

Speaking of creepy-crawlies…

“Mǎ yǐ shàng shù” (“ants climbing a tree”) is a popular Sichuan dish made with bean thread noodles (the tree) and crumbled meat (the ants).

Okay, okay, something more regal? “Hóng shāo shī is tóu” (“lion’s head”) is a common Chinese dish that’s actually simmered pork meatballs. If you’re feeling particularly poetic, the meatball in the braising vessel surrounded by vegetables looks like a lion’s head and mane.

Something a little naughty

Just when you thought we were over the most uncomfortable names, we share with you that in Germany, minced blood sausage served with bacon and fried onions is called “tote Oma” (“dead grandma”) and also colloquially known as “Verkehrsunfall” (“traffic accident”).

The unique visual of a particular Umbrian salami gives “palle di nonno” its equally unique name of “Grandpa’s balls.” (Google it.) Given that it’s made from pork, we can assure you that no actual grandfathers went into the making of this mild salami flavored with wine. To be honest, the salami actually looks a lot like hand grenades.

Even saints have a sweet tooth. The Sicilian pastry “minne de Sant’Agata” (“Saint Agatha’s breast”) looks just like its namesake (or what we’d imagine they’d look like) and is a ricotta-stuffed rounded sponge cake made with candied fruit throughout and a delightfully suggestive candied cherry on top.

Given the Dutch qualmless acceptance of the human body and all our naked parts, “blote billen in het gras” (“bare bums in the grass”) is something you’ll definitely find in kitchens across the Netherlands. It’s a common comfort food of cannellini beans and green beans served alongside a mound of mashed potatoes.

In France, England, and America, little choux pastry balls that are fried in lard and then sprinkled with sugar are called “pets de soeur.” In Germany, they’re called “Nonnenfürzchen,” which translates as “nun’s fart” or more generously, “nun’s puff.” In Canada, the name remains the same, though the incarnation is slightly different, being a traditional way to use pastry scraps by rolling them up with butter, cinnamon, and sugar.

A parchment lined metal dish filled with pets de soeur beside a black and white image of a nun farting.
: Audrey Le Goff Loveleen

We can sorta see it

Portugal boasts an egg-yolk heavy dessert, “papo de anjo” (“angel’s double chin”), that dates back to 14th-century nuns. Basically cooked egg yolks dipped in a sugar syrup, these round, dumpling-like balls are reminiscent of cherubic chins and cheeks. And who knows better about angels than those gals? Faced with an abundance of yolks—the whites were used to starch up habits and wimples (you know, those headdresses)—the yolks were put to good use in these sweetly syrupy little nibbles.

Finally, it’s time for after-dinner coffee. This article was, in fact, inspired by us contemplating that many of you, dear readers, may not realize that Italy’s sumptuous “affogato” actually means “drowned,” as in, you’re drowning that scoop of vanilla gelato in espresso. Delicious and dangerous. That’s how we like it around here.

And, if you’re looking to dip something in that espresso, may we suggest a “cat tongue”? Known as “katte tong” in the Netherlands, “kue lidah kuching” in Indonesia, “lengua de gato” in the Philippines, and “langues de chat” in France, these cookies are always light and delicately sweet. They can be dipped in chocolate or buttercream but purists insist that they’re better unadorned.

A picture of a stack of golden biscuits beside a picture of 2 tabby cats with their tongues sticking out.
: Foxartwork Tim Ur

Thankfully, we don’t ascribe to the saying that you are (literally) what you eat, something we rethought when we were confronted by the name of the Scottish-Gaelic mushroom, “balg-bhuachair” (“satchel of poop”). It’s just a name, after all. Then again, we also have the beloved French “eclair au chocolat,” which essentially means “lightening made of chocolate.” Perhaps we ought to rethink our stance.

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

Comments

  1. Well, I’ll hedge this bet. There was a new chef in town, Richard, and he decided to try his hand at a new sort of dessert. At the same time, the guests were somewhat sploshed and noticed that Rickie was very freckly. Add in their immaturity and we got….. that is how the pudding in question got its name, correct?

    1. Mikey, good thing you hedged. Here’s the origin of the name: “Spotted Dick is a steamed suet pudding containing dried fruit, and is thought to have originated in the middle of the 19th Century. The “spotted” part of the name refers to the currants, which resemble spots, and “Dick” is believed to derive from the word dough.”

  2. I’m so happy I ran into this article. Totally fun read, informative, and leaves me thinking I need to look into where the names of some of my food favs came from.

  3. In Belgium, the little chocolate sprinkles that they put on toast for breakfast are referred to as muizenstrontjes. Muizen means mice, strontjes means droppings. My Belgian mother in law would always ship us bags of these.

    1. I love that, bkhuna! Thank you so much for sharing–I’ll likely never forget it, either! I’ve always loved the idea of sprinkles on toast and this just makes it that much better.

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