Learn to Read Chinese MenusEmma - 25 May 2016
Despite being one of the most exported cuisines in the world, one of the biggest obstacles when travelling in China can be getting something to eat. The most delicious and cheapest places are local restaurants. Unfortunately, these often just have Chinese characters painted up on the wall, driving the vast majority of tourists to eat in English speaking tourist traps, with picture menus and ‘westernised’ menus. Rather than resorting to always eating in western-friendly places, be daring and try out a local dive with this quick guide to learn to read Chinese menus.
Dishes to Try
Yu Xiang Rou Si
This translates to ‘fish scented meat strips’. While this doesn’t sound appetising, it is a lovely sticky, sweet dish.
Gong Bao Ji Ding
This was the precursor to ‘kung pao chicken’ in the west. At its best, it’s my favourite dish in the world. Gong Bao is meant to be the name of the dish’s inventor, and ‘ji ding’ means cubes of chicken. The chicken is cooked with warming dried chillies, fragrant Sichuan peppercorns, peanuts and greens, all with a flavourful sticky sauce. It is worth taking the effort to learn to read Chinese menus just to make sure you can find authentic gong bao ji ding!
Ma Po Dou Fu
This can be roughly translated to ‘pockmarked tofu’. It’s tofu (beancurd) marinated in a bright red oily sauce, made with chillies, beans, and minced meat. It is a characteristic Sichuan dish, and contains lots of fragrant Sichuan peppers, known for their ability to numb the mouth.
These are the kind of dumplings known in the west as pot-stickers.
This is the origination of chow mein, and literally translates to ‘fried noodles’. A carb-rich stomach-filler!
Hui Guo Rou
This literally translates to twice cooked meat, and is the closest you’re going to get to bacon in Chinese cooking. It’s basically thick bacon, with greens, which is eaten with rice.
Fan Qie Ji Dan
Literally translated as ‘tomato egg’, this is noodle soup with tomatoes and eggs mixed in. It is usually incredibly cheap, and served in enormous steaming bowls.
Bei Jing Kao Ya
The archetypal Beijing dish, this is what westerners know as Peking duck. You’ll find an abundance of restaurants sell this in Beijing, but it’s often much more expensive than tourists expect. You’re more likely to find it in specialist or more upmarket restaurants. You don’t need to be able to read Chinese menus to find this tourist favourite.
Another Sichuan classic! This is an intimidating dish consisting of a big cauldron of boiling oil, which is bright red from the chillies that have been added, amongst other flavourings. Alongside a hotpot you also order many dishes of raw vegetables and meats. You drop all of these in the oil, which is sat on a special burner in the middle of the table, and after a while you use your chopsticks to fish them out. There’s usually also a ladle to help you get to things lurking at the bottom. Most people wash down the spicy oily goodness with lots of beers, or nut milk. Usually you’ll need to go to a specialist hot pot restaurant to eat this, but it’s well worth it for the fun experience. They’re easy to find, particularly in Sichuan, and can often be identified by the billowing steam inside the windows. It’s probably worth noting that going for hotpot is a group activity, so solo travellers might want to find some friends to go with!
Characters to Read Chinese Menus
肉 Meat – rou
鸡肉 Chicken – ji rou
猪肉 Pork – zhu rou
牛肉 Beef – niu rou
羊肉 Lamb – yang rou
鸭肉 Duck – ya rou
鱼 Fish – yu
肚子 Stomach – du zi
皮蛋 100 year egg – pi dan
鸡蛋 Chicken egg – ji dan
豆腐 Tofu – dou fu
汤 Soup – tang
面条 Noodles – mian tiao
炒 Fried – chao
菜 Vegetables – cai
番茄 Tomato – fan qie
南瓜 Pumpkin – nan gua
藕 Lotus Root – ou
青菜 Spring greens – qing cai
土豆 Potato – tu dou
茄子 Eggplant – qie zi
Tips for Chinese Restaurants
- You might be asked ‘la bu la?’ which means spicy, or not spicy. If you want it spicy, say ‘la’. If you would rather it wasn’t, say ‘bu la’.
- You don’t need to order rice, it will come automatically, unless you’re eating noodles
- In most local restaurants, a bowl of broth will be brought to the table before or with your meal. This will be refilled whenever it gets low and is free. Chinese tend to have this rather than a drink accompanying their meals, so the assumption will be that you don’t want a drink. If you do, most places will have a fridge with normal soft drinks, water, etc.
- You’re likely to see lots of shao kao (Chinese BBQ) places if you wander round towns in China. These have trays of meat and veg on sticks, and you just get a basket, fill up with what you want and give it to the man or woman working there. They’ll cover it in spices, and barbecue it for you. Delicious and cheap, and a great place to people watch working class locals.
- Despite its reputation, it’s actually quite difficult to find dog on Chinese menus except at specialist places. However, if you want to make doubly sure you don’t eat Fido, the character for dog is 狗
Translation Software (if you can’t be bothered to learn to read Chinese menus!)
There is a magical app called Pleco, which can make your time in China much easier! You can do so much more with it than just learn to read Chinese menus. At it’s most basic level it is a free interactive Chinese dictionary, which works well for those learning the language, but not great for those who just want a quick translation. However… there are add-ons you can buy that are truly the best:
- Full Screen Handwriting: You can crudely try to copy a character by tracing it onto the screen with your finger, and Pleco will match it to possible characters with translations. £7.99
- Optical Character Recogniser: You can take a picture of Chinese characters, and Pleco will translate them for you! Amazing. £10.99