This Chinese version of a crispy rice treat takes its name from a misheard death threat.
The legend of the sweet snack, made primarily with flour and sugar or honey, dates from the era when the Manchus conquered Han China, near the start of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). It seems to have been created by a grumpy Han Chinese chef for a pompous Manchu general.
The story goes that a Manchu general named Sa was posted to a station in Guangdong. There were two things he loved - hunting on horseback, and sweets. Like many Han Chinese of the time, the general's chef loathed his Manchu master, not only for political reasons but because the general demanded that he present him with a new dessert every time he returned from his hunting trips.
One day bad weather brought the general back from the hunt earlier than expected, and the chef hadn't yet prepared a new dish.
Frustrated by the short notice, the chef half-heartedly made a basic dough from flour and water, deep-fried the dough in strips and poured honey over them. As he gave the snack to the general, who was still on horseback, the chef cursed saying 'Xiang sha na qi ma de', meaning 'I wish I could kill that man on the horse'. The general, however, misheard it as 'Sa qi ma', or 'General Sa is riding a horse', thinking the chef had named the snack after him. Despite the nature of its creation, the snack turned out to be delicious and the general loved it (and its name).
In Hong Kong, sa qi ma (below) is often called maa zai, meaning foal, and is also a slang word for racing horses. At the racecourse, punters can be seen eating the snack, as they believe that doing so will bring their charge good luck.