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When I first got to China with zero Chinese abilities to speak of, I quickly realized that it was going to be difficult to eat. In most restaurants, the menu lacks pictures or English translations. Plus, oftentimes when there is some English on the menu, it is totally incomprehensible. What exactly are you going to be eating when you order “tom flower elbow sauce”? Check out our previous post about Chinglish Menus for more hilariously failed translations.
Not wanting to get stuck eating at 老外-friendly places every day – Western menus equals expensive – I knew I was going to have to get to studying local menus pronto. During my first session with a local language partner in Beijing, he asked me what I wanted to study. In response, I pulled out a pile of take-away menus from hole-in-the-wall restaurants in my neighborhood. Before I got to chatting with people, I was going to have to learn how to order food.
For those of you who find yourself in a similar predicament in China, never fear – we’re here to help. To get you started, here are some common headings you might see on a Chinese menu. Study them, memorize them, and become good friends with these characters:
Now that you’ve got those down, why not learn a couple of common items from each heading?
Alright now, young Padawans – you’re ready to get out there and eat the local stuff. If the menu seems too complicated, just remember to use the force. Sorry… Star Wars is coming out soon and I must admit I’m caught up in the hype. In all seriousness, though, don’t be that lame foreigner who only eats in the Western-style cafes and McDonald’s. Eat the real Chinese food while you can in China, because you’ll miss it the second you get back home and it’s all egg rolls and sweet & sour chicken again. Trust me, I know from experience!