In the Discworld Series, pig's ear is portrayed as a low-quality foodstuff. From lspace:

this is a necessity, forced upon the typical Agatean coolie when all the other more interesting bits of the pig have been porked by all the social strata ranking above "peasant", and all you have left to feed a family with are the leftover unappetising bits.

Was this true about pig's ear in real life for Chinese people, which I assume the Agateans are based on?

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    If you want to ask about the real world foodstuff, consider Seasoned Advice cooking.stackexchange.com – b_jonas Feb 18 '16 at 8:28
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    Not really an answer, but perception of quality (appetising-ness) of animal bits can vary from one culture to another. One nice example: the white meat of a chicken is preferred to the red meat in the US, while it's the other way around in Russia. For a more ridiculous sounding example, IIRC, caviar also originated as unappetizing leftover bits. So it's possible that someone who's not an Agatean would consider the pig's ears a delicacy (either on Discworld or on Roundworld). I'll leave the actual answer for someone with better culinary knowledge though :-) – January First-of-May Feb 18 '16 at 8:38
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    This is on topic. If it is to be moved anywhere, English Language and Usage would be more relevant that Seasoned Advice. – Chenmunka Feb 18 '16 at 9:01
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    @JanuaryFirst-of-May: Or, for that matter, the law, I think still on the Boston books, that prisoners could not be fed lobster more than once a week because it was such a cheap and common food. – FuzzyBoots Feb 18 '16 at 12:41
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    to make this more on topic, ask, "did terry pratchet base agateans low quality pig ears on the chinese?" or something along those lines. – Himarm Feb 18 '16 at 13:07

This is a three-way joke.

First and most importantly, in colloquial English, making an impressive mess of a task can be described as 'making a pig's ear of it'. This would not normally involve simply failing. The scenario would typically be one where you had laboured honestly and sincerely, so that it is hard to understand how you could have failed quite so thoroughly.

This is the kind of expression that would never be shouted. There would be a pause, possibly a deep breath, and the observer (imagine a flabbergasted teacher) would say something like, 'Well, we've made a bit of a pig's ear of this, haven't we?'

If this were in a film, we might easily pan from that disappointed face to see an eccentric construction that looks roughly like the thing it was supposed to be... except for all the treacle dripping off it (because you couldn't find the glue, but you did your best)... and then part of it drops off onto the workbench. But it must have taken you hours of genuine effort even to build it to that point.

(This, by the way, conceptually distinguishes the 'pig's ear' expression from the one about trying to make a silk purse from a sow's ear: that is about the foredoomed futility of trying to achieve something delicate, subtle and nuanced by using grossly unsuitable materials—see facsimile here, top of right-hand page. In the 'pig's ear' scenario, you had everything you needed and really could have succeeded: you just somehow managed to make a pretty inexplicable and catastrophic mess of it.)

Second, there is that stereotype of the Chinese being willing and able to cook and eat just about anything... with a little ingenuity in preparation required in particularly challenging areas.

And third, the pig itself is fairly often celebrated (in both east and west, I believe) as the animal of which pretty much every part is (sometimes with ingenious preparation) edible for humans.

The upshot of all this, in Pratchett's wordplay, is that the product in question might seem in some sense suspect or ramshackle, and perhaps even dangerous, but nevertheless be essentially fit for purpose. Instinctively, however, you might still be understandably wary of the culture and the individuals who came up with this bizarre approach.

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  • "pretty much every part is (sometimes with ingenious preparation) edible" There is a sequence in Hogfather where Pratchett makes fairly explicit reference to ways European peasants had of using essentially every bit of a pig. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jun 23 '17 at 1:34

It is not so much a reference to the quality of the foodstuff as a reference to the English expression Pig's Ear meaning a complete failure. If you fail a task, you have made a pig's ear of it.

Essentially, the peasants have failed to get anything better, they have made a pig's ear of their search for food and have wound up with the pig's ear.

Of course, there is the nod towards the reputation that Chinese cookery has in the west, that they will eat anything. But in other books he makes similar culinary sideswipes at the Klatchians - the French.

There are many such word plays in the Discworld books.

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  • I thought of the saying "can't make a silk purse from a pig's ear" - about making something high quality from something leftover or low quality. It would make sense of pig's ear being a low quality foodstuff (or just stuff). Of course, your saying fits as well - just it wasn't the first one I thought of. – Megha Feb 19 '16 at 10:45
  • @Megha The expression or idea that you are thinking of is a different one, usually encountered as 'you can't make a silk purse of a sow's ear' (a sow being a female pig). That is to do with the impossibility of making something delicate and refined, if you start with gross, unsuitable materials. – Captain Cranium Feb 20 '16 at 1:14
  • @CaptainCranium - Fair enough. There's still the equation of sow's ear to unsuitable material, which is what I was remembering... but the quote in the answer is probably closer to what was intended. – Megha Feb 20 '16 at 2:11
  • @Megha - yeah, they are rather different expressions, though of course sharing the idea of crude clumsiness.. Wiktionary attributes the 'silk purse' one to Stephen Gosson, writing in 1579, rather wonderfully pointing to this facsimile of the original page. Gosson bemoans the folly of certain thinking, as if (in modern spelling) 'to make a silk purse of a sow's ear, that when it should close, will not come together'. Much of the time the internet is rather annoying, but some days I just love it. – Captain Cranium Feb 20 '16 at 10:34
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    "the Klatchians - the French" are you saying that klatch is inspired by france??? I never understood it like that... for me it is clearly inspired by arab countries (and genua is inspired by the new orlean which is the closest to french that I can remember in discworld) – max pnj Jun 7 '16 at 8:47

To quote from the Wikipedia article (emphasis mine):

General [Chinese Cuisine]

In Chinese cuisine, pig's ear is often an appetizer or a side dish, called 豬耳朵 (pinyin: zhū ěr duo, "pig's ear"). Pig's ear can be abbreviated in Chinese to simply 豬耳. In some regions, pig's ears are known as 层层脆 (ceng ceng cui, literally "layers of crunch"). It can be first boiled or stewed, and then sliced thin, served with soy sauce or spiced with chili paste. When cooked, the outer texture is gelatinous, akin to tofu, and the center cartilage is crunchy. Pig's ear can be eaten warm or cold.

Cantonese cuisine

In Cantonese cuisine, it is another ingredient used in lou mei. The emphasis is on using all edible parts of the pig. Pigs' ears (and lou mei in general) are not considered as delicacies.

You also get a bit of crossover with how dried pig's ears are used as dog treats in many countries (presumably due to the combination of them being seen as "leftover" bits of meat and due to the cartilage providing a satisfying chewing experience).

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