This afternoon in the office, a colleague offered me a Preserved Wife Plum. Gastronomically, they are small, dry, hard and flavoured, with the pit still inside. Linguistically, they are anyone’s guess. The three Chinese speakers sharing my office couldn’t tell me what the name meant. I don’t know whether it is meant to be [preserved (wife plum)] (whatever a wife plum is) or [(preserved wife) plum] (whatever a preserved wife is – it’s probably better not to ask). I thought that perhaps it was a misprint for ‘wine’, but if it was, surely one of the Chinese speakers could have figured that out from the Chinese characters.
The internet shows that the product exists, but doesn’t explain the name. The blogger gentlemanfarmer tells of his encounter with them, describing them as ‘Dried and salty and sweet and a little plummy’. He writes: ‘Also a red square with the words: “Additional Support: We like the new taste. We need the quality and we need the best food. Here you will find what you want. Cool fashion need Cool taste. You are the new man. How delicious can not forget special taste. Return the pure flavor. Give you the minerable feeling.”’ The red rectangle on the packet I saw is all in Chinese. In a reply to a comment, he also speculates that it is a typo for ‘wine’.
The other most informative result is from the blogger Peverelli on the blog chinafoodingredients. S/he writes ‘Huamei, dried and preserved plums, has been a favourite snack of Chinese, in particular ladies, for ages’. Possibly, then, they are ‘preserved plums for wives’. ‘The traditional huamei were basically dried and salted plums, scented with licorice and sometimes other ingredients like: lemon juice, aniseed, cloves or cinnamon.’
[update 13 July: the esteemed Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania posted about Preserved Vegetable-Students on Language Log. I took the opportunity to ask about Preserved Wife Plums and he replied with a very detailed post.]