Oh, the dreaded Chinese menu. Here you are, sitting comfortably in a small restaurant in China, hungry and ready to dig into some big bowl of noodles or a pile of dumplings. The waiter comes by and hands you the menu. Oh no, no pictures! And, what’s worse, no English translations either. Sure, the translations tend to be far from perfect, but they at least hint towards the right direction. Duck or fish? Steamed or fried?
You can barely make out the characters for ‘rice’ and ‘noodles’ and that’s about it. The waiter is standing next to the table, his pen impatiently tapping on his notebook. His English is nonexistent, his attitude far from being helpful. Come on, laowai, you seem to hear him say impatiently.
Your confidence is diminished and you decide to stay on the safe side so you go with your usual: 蛋炒饭 (DànChǎoFàn) – egg fried rice. You look down in embarrassment, feeling defeated. At least the waiter seems to know what you are saying and you can finally resume your breathing several minutes later when the food finally arrives.
We know that these situations can be difficult, especially for beginners, or for those who haven’t been in China for long, but they don’t really have to be. Not if you know what you are looking at. Follow our short guide and get the most of your dining out experience. Bon Appetite!
1. Look for categories and topics
First of all: Don’t panic. In most restaurants the menus will be divided into different sections. Look for the different 类 (Lèi), ‘category’ to narrow it down to what you want:
- 面类 (Miàn Lèi) – noodle dishes
- 饭类 (Fàn Lèi) – rice dishes
- 汤类 (TāngLèi) – soups
- 海鲜类 (HǎiXiānLèi) – sea food
- 蔬菜类 (ShūCài Lèi) – vegetable dishes
2. Look for ways of preparing food
The key here lies in the radical for ‘fire’ or 火 (Huǒ), which appears in its original shape when it’s on the left side of the character and is written like four dots when it’s placed at the bottom of a character (see the character for ‘boil’ below). Some of the main types of food preparation are as follows:
- 炒 (Chǎo) – stir-fried
- 烧 (Shāo) – braised
- 烤 (Kǎo) – roasted/baked
- 炸 (Zhá) – deep-fried
- 煮 (Zhǔ) – boiled
3. Look for types of meat
Find the word for ‘meat’ which is 肉 (Ròu), if you want to be more specific look for these different types of meat:
- 鸡肉 (JīRòu) – chicken
- 牛肉 (NiúRòu) – beef
- 羊肉 (YángRòu) – lamb
- 猪肉 (ZhūRòu) – pork
- 鸭肉 (YāRòu) – duck
- 鱼 (Yú) – fish
4. Some famous dishes:
If everything else fails, go with some ‘oldies but goldies’. The dishes listed here are very popular and will be served in most of the restaurants.
- 鱼香茄子 (YúXiāngQiéZi) – egg-plant in Szechuan sauce
- 麻婆豆腐 (MáPóDòuFu) – ma po bean cake
- 蚝油兰远 (HáoYóuLánYuǎn) – Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce
- 炒菜心 (ChǎoCàiXīn) – sauteed Chinese greens
- 宫保鸡丁 (GōngBǎo JīDīng) – spicy diced chicken
- 饺子 (JiǎoZi) – dumplings
- 春卷 (ChūnJuǎn) – spring roll
- 蛋炒饭 (DànChǎoFàn) – fried rice