The Beggar’s Chicken and 难/難

What relation between the character 难/難, difficult, and a succulent dish, the Beggar’s Chicken?

Yellow earth + bird

In ancient China, a cooking technique for birds became widespread. The bird was coated with yellow clay. When the bird was roasted, the blackened feathers were removed and the meat could be eaten. This operation was difficult to accomplish; hence, by extension, the difficult meaning of the character.
Some ancient spelling have three components huáng, yellow, , 土 tǔ, earth and a bird。 In other characters, earth gives way to fire, , huǒ. 難 as well as has its history.
Another explanation: the dominant theory sees in 難 a bird’s name, which by borrowing, gave the meaning of difficult. It is not very convincing, but it survives.

Hand + bird

The simplified character 难 has not kept the old structure. The part on the left, which designates the hand, associated with the bird, can be used as a mnemonic trick: a bird is difficult to catch.

Friday likes this chicken

This cooking took the name of 叫化鸡, and gave a popular dish of the same name: 叫化鸡,Poulet du mendiant (Beggar’s Chicken). The technique does not seem to be exclusive to China, since Michel Tournier in Vendredi ou la Vie sauvage mentions it: “The ideal for Vendredi was certainly to eat as well as possible, but anywhere, anytime, and especially without the need for a kitchen and utensils. The explosion had destroyed the dishes and pots and pans on the island. For example most of the birds they ate, Friday prepared them with clay. This is the simplest and funniest way to cook a chicken or any other bird: Vendredi would empty it and put salt, pepper, and as much herbs or even a little stuffing in its belly as he liked, but it was not necessary. He would leave all his feathers in his belly. Then he prepared wet clay – not too wet, but enough so that it was easy to shape and knead – and made a flat cake out of it. Then he would roll this cake around the bird, he would enclose it well in the dough, he would make around it like a ball of clay that looked like a big egg or a rugby ball, depending on its size. The layer of clay should be one to three centimeters thick. He would make a fire in a hole with wood that was quite full, because he needed many embers. When the fire was well established, he would put the ball of clay in the hole in the middle of the embers. Then he kept the fire going for an hour or two. The clay dried and hardened like pottery. When the ball had become hard, he would take it out of the hole and break it. The feathers remained stuck to the clay, and the bird was baked like in the oven, soft and tasty. »
You can read the article on the Sinogastronomie website about this dish, where I discovered Tournier’s text.

Articles on Chinese characters and language :

Character 青

行 xíng Language

Radical arrow 矢

Radical child 子

Radical eye 目

Radical heart 心

Radical illness 疒

Radical knife 刀,刂

Radical 巳

Spoken language

3 November 2020

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