How to Learn to Order Food in Chinese

29 Nov 2007

Back in the good old days, when I lived in Hangzhou, I often hung out with a motley crew of foreign teachers. In that group, when we went out to restaurants to eat, I was usually “the food orderer.” This was partly because I had been in China the longest and was most comfortable speaking Chinese, but it was mostly because I could actually read the menu.

Even if you have an education in Chinese, you can’t really prepare yourself for being handed an all-Chinese menu. I mean, for one thing, it’s all in Chinese, and for another thing, your ability to decipher the characters on that menu directly impacts what goes in your stomach. Now that’s a kind of pressure that mere tests and quizzes can never exactly compare to.

I know what they teach you in Chinese class. You get the words for (rice), (noodles), and (meat) down pretty well, but come on, was anyone really paying attention during that chapter on vegetables? No way! And yet now it’s time to pay that price, because very likely, you’re only going to be able to read one or two characters, tops, in each dish name, and most dish names are four characters long. Yikes. (Insider’s tip: it really may not be too wise to order that “something-something-meat” dish!)

My co-worker JP was recently raving about the site Like a Local, because it was helping him figure out what to order. I also pointed him to How to Order Chinese Food. Both of these will help. But if you really want to learn what’s on those menus, I can tell you a better way. It’s what I did, and it really works.

So here it is:

How to Learn to Order Food in Chinese

  1. Get a menu.

    Go to your favorite restaurant with a Chinese-only menu. Get a copy of the menu. It may only have a menu on a wall, in which case you’ll need your digital camera. They may not want to part with one of their menus, but if you pay them something (like 5 RMB), they’ll usually do it (and also think you’re crazy). If you’re a bold charmer, you might also be able to get them to lend you their menu while you get it photocopied down the street. (Tip: a typed menu will save you a lot of grief!)

    The Smokehouse Menu
    My original menu project, from The Smokehouse

  2. Type up the menu.
    OK, now here’s the kicker. You’re gonna love it. You have to look up every word and every character you don’t know and transcribe them. It may be possible to get an electronic copy of the menu, but honestly, that’s not really going to help you. Suffer for your menu. This step will take you some time, but do it. It’s the most crucial.

  3. Learn the menu.
    No, this is not the part where I advocate rote memorization. If you’ve done step 2, at this point you will have some vague idea of what most things on the menu are. This will make you very happy, but you’re not done! For every dish you’re not totally clear on, you either have to ask what it is, or, if you don’t have the language skills for that yet, order it. Another option is pointing to what other people in the restaurant are eating and asking the staff to identify it on your copy of the menu while you make notes. If you’re smart, though, you’ll usually be going to the restaurant when there aren’t many other customers so that the staff will be more patient and accommodating to your wacky laowai menu antics. One way or another, you have to figure out what those dishes you now know how to say actually are, and erase all the question marks.

    fac-08
    This is the time to ask all those annoying menu questions!

  4. Translate the menu.
    This may seem unnecessary, but honestly, it really helps. Translate the entire menu into English. Now, this may be kind of tough to do. Chinese dish names, at times, seem to crafted precisely to defy translation. My advice is: be descriptive, and have fun. So maybe 鱼香 literally means “fish fragrant” and it often gets translated that way, but it’s not even fish, and that translation sucks, dammit! So I went the “have fun” route and translated it triumphantly as “fishilicious.” Then there’s 霉干菜, which doesn’t seem to really have an English translation. One look at the stuff and I knew its new descriptive name: “blackgrass.” This was a menu for me, and it made sense. (Don’t forget to give an English name to the restaurant too!)

  5. Share the menu.
    This one is optional. Print out copies of your bilingual menu and share it with the restaurant. Typically, they will absolutely love you for this, because it means they can use it in the restaurant to try to attract the “big foreign money.” If you’re in a school situation like I was, then at least share it with your fellow foreign students or co-workers. New arrivals to China were especially grateful for this.

That’s it! If you follow these steps and do a good job, you will likely never have serious problems with a Chinese menu again. The great part is that as long as you choose a restaurant with a decent selection of the normal dishes (家常菜), you only have to do it once. After that, you should be able to guess most things even on unfamiliar menus, and what you can’t guess you can order and quickly fill in your knowledge gaps.

Good luck with those food adventures…


Related: Junk Food Review 1, Junk Food Review 2, my Chinese Menu pictures on Flickr.

Two other good Chinese food blogs (discovered via the CBL): Appetite for China and Have you Eaten Yet?

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Oh my, I am glad someone else did this. I haven’t yet, but I am so tired of sitting in restaurants and sometimes, despite even knowing what many of the characters, have no idea what the food is. So I was seriously considering taking my digital camera there tomorrow and taking a picture of the menu and translating the whole thing. And then I read this, so I feel a little better about my insanity.

  2. We did something very similar – at a tiny hole in the wall place with four folding tables and some plastic stools for chairs. They had a single sheet menu, with writing on both sides. We painstakingly transcribed it into a notebook, then over the course of a few months, ordered every dish and wrote our translation and a happy or sad face to describe our feelings about it. We had a very patient waitress who we got to know pretty well, and I think it was a great experience. Food is still my best subject in Chinese, because of this. Oh, and probably because I use that vocabulary almost every day.

  3. My main tip for people in the very early stages of menu-reading is simply “Don’t get anything with the 虫 radical unless you’re sure you know what it is.”

  4. I’ve been meaning to do this ever since you told me to, weeks ago, but I could never walk off with a menu…. I’ve been hoping to show my face at enough places to get guanxi, and then ask; obviously I’m too meek.

    Anyway, I’ve found a few places where I can have dinner for one and actually read the menu, so I’m doing ok. When I go out with other people, my rule is that the tallest dude orders.

  5. This entry made me smile to myself. Very useful in the mere fact that it will probably make people realize it’s okay to put some effort into this and stop eating the same two dishes every time they go out. (I dread going out with other expats to Chinese restaurants sometimes because of the monotony factor)

    One suggestion that might make this process slightly less painstaking, and forgive me if this has already been mentioned somewhere else at Sinosplice, but I highly recommend the Dimsum translator (PC and Mac friendly!) because it has a feature where you can draw in the character to look it up. There’s online dictionaries that do the same, but Dimsum doesn’t require continuous access to the internet which is a plus for me–less lag.

    Also, I’ve discovered the best Chinese food just by going out with Chinese foodies (I’d say that makes up about three quarters of the Chinese population). Granted sometimes locals like things that squeamish Westerners might not consider edible, but more often than not my friends manage to order yummy things I wouldn’t be able to find on my own or wouldn’t recognize as being good just from the name on the menu. Then I write down the names of the dishes I like (characters and pinyin if necessary) in a little notebook I keep with me for future reference.

  6. Ordering dishes at a restaurant is definitely most exciting, adventurous, and pleasant part of living in foreign countries, especially in China. As of now, my success rate would probably be around 70%, but unfortunately, the more successful, the less exciting.

  7. Jacki,

    Do it! It totally works!

  8. Nicki,

    Thanks for the testimonial. 🙂

  9. Tom,

    Pretty good rule, but what about those delicious 虾??

  10. JP,

    Well, if you’re that shy, you could still take your camera and take a picture of the menu.

    Your current plan will work, but it’s likely that you’ll never get very familiar with more than about a dozen dishes even after a year. Going through all the menu translation work is really beneficial.

  11. Its sort of like that time I asked this question on Chinesepod, where mostly everyone shot at my grammar but you suggested I get crafty with a menu. I’m still waiting for the mood to strike me, but in the meanwhile your pictures are broken files, which makes me a little sad.

  12. Also, be aware that some menus on mainland China still use traditional characters, or a mix of traditional and simplified. For example, some restaurants in Beijing whose names include “老北京“ may do it to indicate they follow old family recipes. Others are just Taiwanese-owned.

    There’s also the problem of dishes that have poetic/literary names that don’t describe the dish at all. Of course, that’s when the web comes in handy once you translate the name character by character. Chances are someone will have written about it before.

  13. this seems like a great idea, and I think I’m going to try it when I get back. I had a fair amount of success last time just picking items based on the characters I knew, or, on occasion, selecting random menu items, but this seems like a more schorlarly, less random approach.

  14. Has anyone tried this with a Chinese restaurant in the US? A lot of he take out places have the Chinese in the left column next to the English column. I’m going to have to try this.

  15. […] John Pasden has a very good discussion of how to order food in Chinese. I did something like this with McDonald’s (which has very odd translations of its food) when Ruth came on a long-term visit to China with me as a child, and then with more di4 dao4 de restaurants later. […]

  16. I’ve occasionally done something like this here in Vancouver, purely as a learning exercise. Grab a takeout menu, bring it home, translate everything. Yeah, it’s not strictly necessary, since the takeout menus always have English on them too (although sometimes there is a semantic gap between the Chinese and the menu’s translation). Oh, and googling the name of the dish (including image search) can be enlightening too.

    What is not advisable is to bring your pda with plecodict and attempt to translate while at that restaurant, at least not if you want to order within 30 minutes. That didn’t work when I visited China, nor did it work when I was at a local restaurant which didn’t have any menus except for the chicken-scratch Chinese written on the blackboard on the wall.

  17. Step 2 seems like the biggest obstacle for the less patient among us. Looking every second character up in the dictionary will be quite time-consuming, and within a few days you’ll have forgotten most of them anyway. For us lazy students (those of us who know, for example, that we’re unlikely to ever reach steps 4 & 5), maybe an iterative approach would be more successful: look up the characters to four or five dishes each day, ask the staff to describe them if you’re not clear (by the way, Chinese customers do this all the time!), and pick one or two which sound the nicest.

  18. Owshang: yeah personally I cheated on the process, before I first came to China I went to a few restaurants and got take-out menus with the Chinese and English next to each other. The best was “Shanghai Restaurant” in Oakland which had like 3 separate menus worth of local-style food. However it’s all traditional Chinese characters in the US.

  19. John,

    As always, great advice. My first two months in China were an incredibly boring culinary experience of haoyou nuirou fan (好友牛肉反), gongbao jiding fan (宫保鸡丁反), everything and anything on fan… gaizhaofan sucked after a while. Then I started basically what you suggested and food became by far my most dominant Chinese skill.

    Only problem is, some dishes you either just have to try, or slowly learn the immense amount of cultural and historical knowledge necessary to understand the meaning of some dish names. The more expensive the restaurant, the more flowery (and more frustrating) the names get. Dongpo rou (东坡肉) is one we’re introduced to early on in China, but without trying it, you’re unlikely to understand it from learning the words alone. My reading is pretty good these days, but there are many, many instances when I know all the characters but still can’t figure out the meaning. All that makes the English translations on some menus even funnier to read.

    Got to plug a friend’s site – Kung Fu Eats. Lots of good, juicy dishes reviewed.

  20. This is exactly how I began to learn Chinese, and I don’t mean just food Chinese. There is nothing more practical in learning a language than learning how to order food, and it’s amazing how much other knowledge will come simply from translating a menu. Great post!

  21. Interestingly enough, I was granted with a great deal of suspicion when I first tried to secure a menu. I told the restaurant (actually several restaurants) exactly why I wanted it, and they were all worried…The ridiculousness of this matter is even more poignant for anybody who can read Chinese menus and knows that they are all quite similar (excluding regional cuisine)…as if I was going to go online and spill the secret to the world that Restaurant A serves 铁板牛肉and 西红柿炒蛋

  22. This is great, but what about when your trying to impress your in-laws at a fancy restaurant where all the menu items have ridiculous names like “Eight Pleasures Chicken”.

    …oh FOOD menu.

  23. Greg Pasden Says: December 1, 2007 at 9:48 am

    So does this mean I can’t order General Tso’s Chicken!?!?!

  24. Ha! We did something similar for a fried rice vendor outside my university two years ago, but never thought to do it large-scale. Fishilicious eggplant! Love it.

  25. ha, the day after I read your post I stumbled across this local restaurant. I’d passed it before several months ago, but this time I could read most of the characters. I’m going tonight to get a menu, and after I translate it my teachers and some friends are all going to eat dog together. It will be a first time for some of us.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this idea. I’m looking forward to trying it out!

  26. […] might be good but we had a few problems: not only did we not understand the menus (check out John’s post on how to learn Chinese menus–wish I had read this before going to Taiwan), we also could not read or pronunce the words on […]

  27. hi john,
    this is almost exactly how I do it. Trouble is that I can’t write Chinese, and I don’t know how to count the strokes – therefore I can’t use a dictionary. I pay someone to type it into the computer and then translate online myself. It’s the only way to learn. Plus my memory is so bad, half the stuff I’ve written about on likealocal I’ve forgotton already – but that’s no problem because I can just go online and look it up again! Super.

  28. So we just tried this out. I went and copied the menu, translated the relevant parts, and then went with some friends to try some new food for the first time (at the “Qiān Lóng Shùn Specialty Dog Meat House“). I’ve put my ‘translation’ (unfinished, overly-literal, and with a lot of errors… what do you expect from a first-year student? =) ) online – really eye-opening, and helped me learn a lot of food vocab. Didn’t have time to finish it or get the errors fixed before we went to eat, though.

    One word of advice to add to your post – pick a small menu!

  29. Can you tell me how to say 茄子煲 in English?

  30. Great advice! Just moved to China and will definitely be trying this soon…

  31. howtoorderchinesefood.com just gave me a reason to buy a 3G tablet….

  32. Cool post. One of the first characters I ever learned was 肠 (chang2) meaning ‘intestines’. When I went to restaurants I would scan the menu for dishes that had the characters 猪肉,牛肉,and 鸡肉 in them, and watch out for 肠. Even though I may have missed out on the 香肠, I think I did pretty well as I tried some good dishes and didn’t usually end up eating innards by accident.

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