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7 Must-Know Questions for Eating Out in China Posted by on May 16, 2019 in Culture, food, Vocabulary

If you’re at a beginner level of Chinese, one of the most intimidating experiences is going out to a local restaurant. You show up to a crowded, noisy place and glance at the menu on the wall. It’s nothing but Chinese characters. The waiter asks you a question, and you have no idea what he just said. Looking around, you notice a few people giggling at you, the helpless lao wai. Before you give up hope and go order McDonald’s for lunch, read on for a list of 7 must-know questions for eating out in China.

Ugh… English menu, please! (Photo by Sasha Savinov)

 

1. 你们几位?
nǐ men jǐ wèi?
How many of you?

This is the first question you’ll get in any restaurant where you have to get a table and be waited on. It’s easy enough to answer this one. Just say “我们… 位” (wǒ men… wèi) with the number in the middle. For example, “我们三位” (wǒ men sān wèi) means “There are 3 of us.”

 

2. 你有英文菜单吗?
nǐ yǒu yīng wén cài dān ma
Do you have an English menu?

There’s no shame in asking this question! Sure, you want to learn the Chinese characters (I recommend starting with the 100 most common), but you don’t want to end up ordering chicken feet when you’re super hungry.

Spicy temptation of frog. (Photo by Sasha Savinov)

While you won’t find English menus in hole-in-the-wall joints, many restaurants do have an English menu. Actually, many of them have a Chinglish menu. While not exactly helpful for ordering food, these can at least provide a good laugh!

Peruse the Chinglish menu in this funny video.

 

3. 你有照片菜单吗?
nǐ yǒu zhào piàn cài dān ma?
Do you have a picture menu?

In case the English menu doesn’t exist or is just full of Chinglish – WTF is “chicken without a sex life” anyways? – you can ask this question in hopes that some pictures will help guide you to a nice meal. During my first few months in China when I spoke absolutely no Chinese, I ordered based off pictures alone on multiple occasions. Sure, you get some weird stuff from time to time, but it’s better than just pointing to some random Chinese words you don’t know!

 

4. 你们有什么特色菜?
nǐ men yǒu shén me tè sè cài
What is your specialty?

When eating out in China, you can always stick to the familiar. All across the country, you can find staple dishes like dumplings (饺子 – jiǎo zi) or kung pao chicken (宫保鸡丁 – gōng bǎo jī dīng). Actually, you can go ahead and print out my list of common Chinese dishes. If you memorize those, you’ll never go hungry!

Yunnan Cuisine

Local specialties in Yunnan province.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love dumplings. I even wrote a love letter to them. However, every now and then you’ve got to mix it up and try something new. This is my go-to question when I’m in a new restaurant or traveling to a new part of China. Trying the local specialty is a must, and people are usually really excited to tell you about it.

 

5. 这个有肉吗?
zhè ge yǒu ròu ma?
Does this have meat?

Being a vegetarian (素食主义者 – sù shí zhǔ yì zhě) in China can be tricky. This is definitely a country that loves to eat meat. Sometimes, there’s even meat hiding in a dish that you would otherwise think is vegetarian…

Mmmm.. Mapo tofu.

Take Mapo tofu (麻婆豆腐 – má pó dòu fu), for example. This dish would be fine for vegetarians, but it’s often cooked with minced pork. To make sure it’s clear, you can tell your waiter “I don’t eat meat.” (我不吃肉 – wǒ bù chī ròu). I also put together a post on being a vegetarian in China that will help you decide what to order.

 

6. 你可以给我推荐一个吗?
nǐ kě yǐ gěi wǒ tuī jiàn yī gè ma
Can you recommend something?

For those times when you have no idea what you want to eat and you can’t understand the menu, this is a great question to put out there to your waiter. After all, the people working in the restaurant usually know the menu quite well! I always like to ask this when I’m trying a new place and see what they recommend.

 

7. 你可以吃辣的吗?
nǐ kě yǐ chī là de ma
Can you eat spicy (food?)

If you ask for a recommendation, don’t be surprised if they respond with this question. After all, Chinese food can be quite spicy, and us lao wai folk aren’t exactly known for our abilities to handle the heat! You can answer one of two ways: “Yes, I can” (可以 – kě yǐ) or “No, I can’t” (不可以 – bù kě yǐ).

The numb and spicy Sichuan hot pot.

If you’re not used to the spiciness of Chinese food, I recommend easing yourself into it. Order up a classic dish of scrambled eggs and tomatoes and just put some chili sauce (辣椒酱 – là jiāo jiàng) on it. Before you know it, you’ll be scarfing down Sichuan hot pot like a champ!

You may be surprised at just how far those 7 questions will get you when eating out in China! Of course, you’ll still want to keep studying Chinese, learning more characters, and improving your fluency, but these questions will at least help ease some of the fear of walking into that local restaurant for the first time.

Learn some more restaurant Chinese and see what’s cooking across the country in this short video I like to call “Scenes From a Chinese Restaurant:”

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


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