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 饭 (rice), 面 (noodles), and 肉 (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
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!)
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.
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.
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!)
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…