Become an Expert on How to Read Chinese Menus
Probably one of the most basic skills in China is being able to sit down at a restaurant and order food! Yet it’s never quite as easy as we hope!
Everyone has to eat, and Chinese cuisine is definitely not something you want to miss out on.
Chinese Menu – Utilise Pictures
Chinese Menu – Check the Prices
Chinese Menu – Find the Basic Characters
Chinese Menu – Food Restrictions?
Chinese Menu – Recommendations
Chinese Menu – Time to Order
But have you ever run into this situation? Or maybe you haven’t arrived in China yet, but you could see this happening!
You sit down in a restaurant, you’re handed a menu, and everything is Chinese! Not a word of English to be found. You’re more likely to run into this sort of situation while eating at smaller, local restaurants (which also happen to have some of the cheapest and most delicious foods!)
What should you do?
If you’re a beginner Chinese student, a Chinese food menu can be extremely intimidating. They probably look nothing like what you’ve seen in your beginner textbooks!
Fortunately, you don’t need to be able to read every single character on the menu to order something you like.
In this blog, I’ll teach you some of the basics of reading a Chinese menu. These tips should help you make educated guesses about what you order, so you’ll be sure to end up with something that suits you!
100 Most Common Chinese Characters
100 Most Common Chinese Characters There are various lists for the most common Chinese characters out there, making learning Chinese all that more difficult. It’s hard to categorize the top 100 common Chinese characters when there are thousands to choose…
How to Read a Chinese Menu – Find a Chinese Menu with Pictures
This is one of the most basic tips, but if you’re at a total loss, try to find a restaurant that has Chinese menus with pictures!
Of course, not every restaurant has this, but pictures can be super helpful.
Additionally, check to see if your restaurant has QR code you can scan and order from.
In my experience, lots of restaurants have this kind of code. You can scan from WeChat or Alipay, and then order and pay on your phone. Even if you don’t have an online wallet set up, you can still scan just to see the menu.
Not only is it super quick and convenient, these types of order forms generally have pictures!
So you can choose your food based on looks instead of characters.
This can take a lot of pressure off you, especially if you can’t communicate with the waiter or waitress very well.
If you’re ever ordering food for delivery, through Meituan (美团) or Eleme (饿了么), menus online also generally have pictures.
BONUS – Alipay is a life saver for foreigners in China because it means you can benefit from all the cashless things here like coffee at Luckin’ and the aforementioned Meituan. It can be linked to your foreign bankcard using the steps in this video.
How to Read a Chinese Menu – Check out those prices
Another basic tip is to quickly scan the prices on the menu.
This can be helpful if you’re a complete beginner and have absolutely no clue what anything on the menu means (except the numbers!)
The prices can clue you into the size of dish.
For example, don’t choose something that’s only 2 RMB from a menu where there’s a whole list of dishes for 20-30 RMB.
How to Read a Chinese Menu – FInd the Basic/Comfort Characters
Let’s talk about some of the most basic food characters, these are the ones you’ll find on almost any menu.
Unlike English (where you wouldn’t be able to read a menu without knowing the specific names for each type of food), a lot of food groups share the same character, which means that you don’t need to learn every ingredient to decide on a dish.
Just recognizing these few main characters can help you narrow down your options considerably.
For example if you like noodles, you need to be looking for 面 or 面条. If you dislike egg, avoid anything with 鸡蛋. This can be a big help in narrowing the options down.
面条 (miàntiáo): noodles
You’re actually more likely to just find the character 面 (miàn) at the end of the dish’s name.
This character, along with 饭 (fàn, next up!) is probably the one you’ll find the most often on a menu.
It’s also one of your most basic choices. Here in Shanghai, noodles or rice are served with almost every dish.
米饭 (mǐfàn): rice
Similarly with noodles, you’ll probably find the single character 饭 (fàn) at the end of the dish’s name to show that the dish is served with rice.
菜 (cài): dish OR vegetable
SPOILER – This character has more than one meaning.
On a menu, it will probably be used in the name of dish to mean vegetable, for example “四川泡菜” (sìchuān pàocài, which means Sichuan pickled vegetables).
You might also find this character used in headings such as:
- 凉菜 (liángcài, cold dishes)
- 热菜 (rècài, hot dishes)
青菜 (qīngcài) / 蔬菜 (shūcài): vegetable
These characters more specifically mean vegetables (not “dish”), but you’re not as likely to find these on a menu, just as you’d be more likely to find the word “broccoli” than “vegetable” on an English menu.
Instead, this could be helpful if you’re asking for a vegetable dish!
BONUS – Not so sure on your Vegetables in Chinese yet, let us help you out with a super quick, super helpful tutorial.
肉 (ròu): meat
More specifically, you might find these characters on a menu:
- 猪肉 (zhūròu, pork)
- 牛肉 (niúròu, beef)
- 羊肉 (yángròu, lamb)
- 鸡肉 (jīròu, chicken)
This is especially useful if you specifically want to order a certain type of meat, or if you’re a vegetarian (like me!) and you want to avoid these!
鱼 (yú): fish
This one goes along with meat, and I’ve added it in because I know that fish can be a bit polarizing (some love it, some hate it)!
So now you can recognize it whether you’re craving or avoiding fish.
汤 (tāng): soup
Soups are often an important part of Chinese cuisine, so you’re likely to run across this character on a menu.
饮料 (yǐnliào): drinks
This often refers specifically to soft drinks.
You can find this on a menu as one of the headings, which can help you categorize the menu options. This is can help you feel a little less overwhelmed!
鸡蛋 (jīdàn): egg
Specifically chicken eggs! Eggs are commonly used, so you’ll find them on a lot of menus.
豆腐 (dòufu): tofu
While tofu is seen as more of a vegetarian option in America, Chinese cuisine utilizes tofu in many different ways, even incorporating them in dishes with meat.
As a vegetarian, knowing these characters was especially helpful.
BONUS – If you are walking along the street and see the characters 臭豆腐 (chòu dòufu), RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!
This is Stinky Tofu and often gives off a rather pungent smell that most westerners struggle to deal with.
炒 (chǎo): fried
This doesn’t mean deep-fried, just fried shallowly in oil.
This character is often combined with others, such as
- 炒饭 (chǎofàn, fried rice)
- 炒面 (chǎomiàn, fried noodles, or “chao mein” as you might see it in some Westernized Chinese restaurants)
- 炒蛋 (chǎo dàn, scrambled eggs, not fried eggs like you might think).
主食 (zhǔshí): main food
This usually includes rice or noodles.
These characters will show up as a heading on a menu, you can use them as a helpful guide for choosing a filling dish, as opposed to a small side dish.
How to Read a Chinese Menu – What about Food Restrictions?
Sometimes reading the menu is more important than just getting a dish you prefer.
If you have any sort of food restriction or allergy, being able to pick something suitable from the menu is essential.
I’m vegetarian myself, and I also went a period of time being gluten-free. Here are some of the characters I’ve found most useful (and then some)!QUICK PLUG – Before we dive into that, Hannah discussed what it’s like to be a Vegetarian in China with her sister Evelyn. They kindly sat down with us to give you a quick guide on how to navigate life in China as a veggie, see what they had to say here.
过敏 (guòmǐn): allergy
Although you won’t find this on a menu, you can use this word when ordering.
If you have an allergy, you can tell the waiter or waitress, “我对______ 过敏” (wǒ duì _____ guòmǐn), meaning “I’m allergic to ______” and just fill in the blank.
For example, “我对花生过敏” (wǒ duì huāshēng guòmǐn), meaning “I’m allergic to peanuts.“
素 (sù): vegetable/vegetarian
Again, you may not find this on a Chinese menu, but it’s something you can ask the waiter or waitress.
If the menu is overwhelming and you want to know if the restaurant serves anything vegetarian, we have a hack.
You can ask the restaurant staff “这里有没有素的菜? (zhè li yǒu méi yǒu sù de cài?).
This means “is there vegetarian food here?”
Alternatively, you can ask if a dish has meat in it (something I ask on a regular basis!)
You can ask “这个菜有没有肉?” (zhège cài yǒu méi yǒu ròu?), which means “does this dish have meat in it?”
小麦 (xiǎomài) / 面粉 (miànfěn): wheat/flour
When I was went gluten-free for a while, I used these characters to help me.
Gluten-free diets aren’t very common in China, so if I wanted to know if something was gluten free, I asked “这个用面粉/小麦做的吗?” (Zhège yòng xiǎomài/miànfěn zuò de ma?), meaning “Is this made with flour/wheat?”
小麦 (xiǎomài) and 面粉 (miànfěn) are good to know, especially if you buy a pre-packaged food with ingredients listed on the back.
As a tip, if you are very strict about eating gluten free, pretty much all soy sauce is made with wheat, and soy sauce is in a lot of dishes. So make sure your dishes don’t have soy sauce in them!
BONUS – Soy Sauce in Chinese is 酱油 jiàng yóu
华生 (huāshēng): peanut
Peanuts are sometimes served in Chinese restaurants as a side dish.
This word is important to know if you have a peanut allergy and need to avoid them.
Asking for recommendations
If worst comes to worst, and you find that the menu is giving you a headache or you simply don’t have time to make a decision, you can always ask the waiter or waitress what they recommend!
I’ve done this plenty of times, and they are always willing to recommend something to me, especially the restaurant’s 招牌菜 (zhāopái cài, signature dish).
This can be particularly helpful if you have a food restriction.
This way, the waiter or waitress can pick something out for you, instead of you trying to scan the menu yourself.
BONUS – If you want to ask for a recommendation, you can say “你推荐什么菜?” (nǐ tuījiàn shénme cài?), which means, “what dish do you recommend?”
Time to Order!
When it comes to ordering, the most basic way to order is simply by pointing, if you don’t know how to say anything.
If you want to flex a little Chinese, you can say “我要一个这个” (wǒ yào yīgè zhège), meaning “I want one of this”.
It’s easy to learn and useful on a daily basis.
BONUS – If you want to see advanced and basic Chinese working, in action, check out Max, Alice and Campbell perfectly ordering their Subway sandwiches below. Whilst Max and Alice go all about their their Chinese, Campbell has a hack, and orders his Subway with just one Chinese word – 这个!
Wrapping things up…
Those are my biggest tips for reading a Chinese menu (and ordering) when you’re a beginner.
Hopefully some of these were helpful or reassuring (if you’re planning on coming to China sometime soon)!
If you’ve been studying Chinese for a while, did I miss any important characters? What other tips do you have for reading Chinese menus? Leave them in the comments below!
How to Read Chinese Menus – FAQ’s
Menu in Chinese is 菜单 càidān.
You should tell the waiter or waitress – “我对______ 过敏” (wǒ duì _____ guòmǐn)
You just need to add in your allergy where the space is. So for example, if you are allergic to peanuts. You would say “我对花生过敏” (wǒ duì huāshēng guòmǐn).
You should ask the waiter or waitress – “这个菜有没有肉?” zhège cài yǒu méi yǒu ròu?
The Chinese character for meat is 肉 and is pronounced ròu.
Rice in Chinese is 米饭 (mǐfàn).
Noodles in Chinese is 面条 (miàntiáo) but commonly you’ll just see and use 面 (miàn).
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