Tricky translations: shawarma

Trying out a more language-focused feature on cheesy translations and slogans related to food in Chinese.

Foreign food in China has a kind of multi-level enjoyment. Not only will you be tasting familiar food that is hopefully tasty, but you can also relish in the translation they chose for your dish. Case in point here is shawarma, something that is quite popular in the Netherlands (possibly one of the few warm breakfasts the Dutch consider, although mostly only when they are students). Shawarma has not necessarily been one of my favorite dishes when I was in the Netherlands, and being back again for over a year I have not eaten it again yet. Its main redeeming feature is probably that it can be combined with lettuce, cheese and fries into the infamous kapsalon, although I normally eat that one with doner kebab.

While in Beijing, there were a few large shopping malls I went to eat. The amount of food that is available in Asian shopping malls is really unparalleled to anything we have in the Netherlands. Regardless, more choice also makes it more difficult to decide and I would often pace up and down the lanes with increasing hunger. I remember seeing for the first time the name of this restaurant and almost bursting in laughter. It was called: 想我么 shawarma. In English that translates to ‘do you miss me shawarma’. The catch is that ‘xiang wo ma’ also sounds like shawarma.

I am not sure who came up with this name. I have heard stories from friends that the person who thought up the Chinese name for Coca Cola was awarded price money (although I can find no very reliable sources with a quick Google search). Looking into it a bit more, it seems the restaurant was a collaboration between Chinese and foreign business partners in Beijing. They appear to have split and the Chinese partner omitted the ‘xiang wo ma’, but the foreign partner is still using it for their separate restaurant.

As a name, even though it is so cheesy you would not need anymore cheese with your shawarma, it works very well. Another quick Google search turned up some customers who were baffled by being asked if they had missed them. And it is very easy to remember, even for people with only a limited understanding of Chinese. I hope the restaurant can somehow get big enough to make ‘xiang wo ma’ the official translation for shawarma. I can already imagine it going viral on Douyin, creating a new holiday when you romantically eat shawarma with your friends, family and partner, as well as a cute mascot for merchandise.

But in the meantime we are stuck just eating shawarma.

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