Chinese Corner

Full of Bean Curd

Tofu metaphors in Mandarin – by Liz Carter

 

Nothingburger. Pizza face. A bun in the oven. Food is ever present in our lives, nurturing us as well as our metaphorical expressions. It should come as no surprise that Chinese cuisine, with its different ingredients and techniques, has inspired a very different spread of food metaphors. In particular, one category exists in Mandarin that is virtually absent in English: tofu quips.

The soft, delectable food lends itself well to sayings about anything that’s likely to crumble under pressure, or scald the over-eager mouth. Here are four things tofu can help you say in Mandarin:

  1. Dāozi zuǐ, dòufu xīn (刀子嘴,豆腐心): Literally “knife mouth, tofu heart.” This describes someone who is sharp-tongued but a real softie.
  2. Xīn jí chī bù liǎo rè dòufu (心急吃不了热豆腐): You “can’t eat hot tofu with a hasty heart.” This means slow down, take your time. Sometimes you have to stop and smell the hot tofu.
  3. Dòufu zhā gōngchéng (豆腐渣工程): “Tofu dregs construction.” Shoddily-made building that crumbles easily. This term was used widely following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, when many schools collapsed, crushing the students and teachers inside.
  4. Chī dòufu (吃豆腐): Perhaps the most notorious tofu metaphor, this literally means “to eat tofu,”, but it also means to grope. “Don’t eat my tofu” means “back off buddy, keep your hands to yourself.” So it’s wise to be careful about how you phrase your tofu cravings.

Groping, deadly construction, and soft insides aside, tofu is ubiquitous and may be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Stinky tofu is especially is a beloved snack in many parts of China – a good reminder not to judge a bean curd by its odor. ∎