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Best Resources for Chinese Cuisine? (Identifying Foods and Reading Menus)

David Ma

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With all the foreigners living in China these days, I'm surprised there isn't at least a post or two about learning the basics of Chinese cuisine. I've been in China for over a year now and still can't identify over half the foods on my plate or the things on the menu *sigh* :D


So, what resources have you found are the best? What really helped push your knowledge of Chinese dining and cuisine forward? This forum definitely needs a sticky/FAQ of some sort.



PS I came across this post which was made waaay back in 2004 and that seems to be it.

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The way I learned restaurant / food vocab was just by finding a good place (food wise) then taking a photo of their menu. I'd go home and translate the thing into pinyin/English then keep it on my phone. Eventually wouldn't need to look back at my phone, I'd just know the dish names. The type of restaurant you do this will also cross over. If it's sichuan or 家常菜 then anywhere else with those kinds of dishes becomes a place you can go to. The same with something more specific like 重庆小面 type places.

Names of a lot of dishes are descriptive (a lot aren't) so I'd end up learning a lot that way. For the rest, if I really wanted to know I'd ask the waitress.

I guess the best resource is a smart phone, dictionary and the ability to hand write the character correctly into that dictionary. If not, take your photo and work on it in class or with a Chinese friend.

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Beijing launches menu translation campaign




Enjoy Culinary Delights: A Chinese Menu in English, a book compiled and published by the Foreign Affairs Office of the People’s Government of Beijing Municipality, contains an introduction to Chinese cuisine and more than 2,000 "official" English translations of name of Chinese dishes. It is written in both Chinese and English.





Download the PDF here


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So, what resources have you found are the best? What really helped push your knowledge of Chinese dining and cuisine forward?


I have a collection of printed menus from restaurants that I frequent. Study them at home. Also, I've found it helpful to read recipes on-line for things I like to eat, looking up unfamiliar ingredients and cooking methods as needed. Sometimes I watch Chinese cooking shows on TV, focusing on the parts I don't know.


Over the years I've hired a couple of people who were ex-restaurant chefs to teach me cooking at home. Have also persuaded Chinese friends to come over for supper, arrive early and show me how to make their favorite dish. Then we eat it together. I will have prepped a couple of simple side items in advance.


Shopping for the best ingredients is just about as important as what you do with them afterwards. So I've gotten help with that from knowledgeable native friends. We go to the wet market together. Once there, I make it a point to always chat with the vendors; they are a great source of specific food knowledge.


Also, as Imron mentioned above, I've posted some food articles here on the forum. Some are in the Kunming subforum (since I live in Kunming) and others are in the Food and Drink subforum.


With all the foreigners living in China these days, I'm surprised there isn't at least a post or two about learning the basics of Chinese cuisine.


Here's a link to one such current post. It's written in a loose narrative style, and may not be as succinct as what you are seeking. I also realize that you may not currently have access to a kitchen and be able to cook your own meals.



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@roddy sure! I've never been in charge of a sticky thread before but it can't be that hard, right? :) After reading all of the wonderful replies, I realize I should've made the title a little more specific. Should be something like "How to identify the most basic fruits and vegetables" and/or "learning the most common characters on a Chinese menu". The intention being that the guide is for the absolute beginner. Maybe "The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Chinese Cuisine" ? Is it possible to change the title?


@chTTay I remember taking a few pictures of restaurant menus when I first arrived, thinking I could just go home and translate. Needless to say, after a few minutes of manually writing characters on the phone, finding the pinyin, and then doing a Baidu search, I gave up rather quickly. I will probably do this sometime soon though now that my Chinese has improved significantly.


@dwq oh, that looks like an awesome book (best of all it being free!) will give it a look through soon


A pocket-sized picturebook kinda like the DK Visual Phrasebook would be pretty handy.

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Ok, I've made this a pinned topic now. I can edit the title, let me know when you've decided what you want it to be. 


Some ideas...


Post pics of various menus for people to work on translating / understanding. Tell us what you'd order from them, what dishes you aren't sure about, where you got the menu, etc. 


Post your dinner topic - post a pic of your dinner and tell everyone what you had, where you ate and how much it cost. 

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"learning the most common characters on a Chinese menu".


Learning the most common words on a Chinese menu would be a more fruitful task.


"How to identify the most basic fruits and vegetables"


This part is easy. I did it by buying illustrated children's books in the bookstore. Books aimed at Chinese kids who are age 5 or 6. Lots of them available. Take a look next time you are in a bookstore.


Then I practiced every chance I got. (Still do today, several years later.) Here are some concrete suggestions that worked well for me:

     1. Go to a market where they sell fruit and vegetables and talk to the sellers about their produce. This will help you make sure you are saying the names of the raw ingredients in an understandable manner. "Where are those apples grown? Are those pears local?"

     2. For prepared food, go to a buffet but don't point at what you want. Force yourself to say the words needed to order. If you  stumble, a server will help you out. Start by just saying the name of the main item, for example, say 茄子。As you gain confidence, add vocabulary about how it was cooked. So, for example, week one simply ask, "Is that eggplant? 这是不是茄子?“。Then week four or five, say 红烧茄子。"Is that hongshao qiezi?"

     3. A variation on that is the breakfast buffet at most hotel restaurants, even small ones. They will usually have someone cooking eggs. Start with the basics, such as 两个鸡蛋, and then start anticipating the usual questions about how you want them cooked, adding detail as you gain confidence. Soon you will be able to tell the person that you want two fried eggs, over easy, but not too well done. 两个煎蛋,双面,但是不太老。This also works in a school cafeteria line.

     4. Same method with the 涮菜 restaurants, where you order raw food to be boiled in broth. These are great places for food vocabulary practice. Put your hands in your pockets (so you cannot just point) and force yourself to say the names of the ingredients you want to eat. They often have a real wide selection of options, including some fun ones like three or four kinds of tofu.


(涮菜 = shuàn cài = boiled food. The cook puts your items in a basket and boils them in a large pot of broth. Then he or she adds seasonings afterwards, as per your request, giving you the chance to use seasoning phrases, such as hold the salt and MSG; only a little hot pepper sauce. (盐和味精不要;少一点的辣椒。)

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You could just use a picture menu.. that cuts out the baidu search part. Then 'manually inputting' character and 'searching for pinyin' is the same process, right? Once you've got the characters in a dictionary, the dictionary throws up the pinyin.


I started off with 盖饭 menu's and worked out from there.

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I've been in China for over a year now and still can't identify over half the foods on my plate or the things on the menu *sigh*


I think it's also relevant to ask what approaches you have tried thus far during your first China year? Might give people here an idea of what works for you and what doesn't.

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When I started I never focused on trying to understand menus specifically. I just started learning Hanzi with an approach of learning the most commonly used Hanzi. As you build your general Chinese reading skill you will quickly be able to decipher the key things on a menu (preparation techniques or nuances may not be recognizable I'm the beginning, but you be able to know what you're ordering, and if a dish sticks out ask what it was and remember that one and those characters for future use).

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Here are a few menus for Guangdong Cuisine, Yuecai 粤菜。I had them out for review before a trip to Hong Kong last month. These "check-box" menus can be intimidating, and I always like to brush up before venturing into that part of China.


(Click on the photos to enlarge them.)


post-20301-0-71242000-1446781268_thumb.jpg   post-20301-0-85644600-1446781279_thumb.jpg


The first one (above) was obtained at the Cantonese restaurant in a Western chain hotel, and has translations for most items.


This one (below) was the take-out menu for a late-night restaurant across from my hotel in Zhuhai on another Guangdong trip.


post-20301-0-29463600-1446781335_thumb.jpg  post-20301-0-98040200-1446781347_thumb.jpg  post-20301-0-64670600-1446781361_thumb.jpg  post-20301-0-68128800-1446781372_thumb.jpg 


Here is another; it even has a few pictures.


post-20301-0-99182000-1446781504_thumb.jpg  post-20301-0-52971400-1446781516_thumb.jpg  post-20301-0-23330400-1446781527_thumb.jpg  post-20301-0-56119300-1446781537_thumb.jpg 


And this last one.


post-20301-0-30189100-1446781654_thumb.jpg  post-20301-0-34113900-1446781665_thumb.jpg


Suggestion: You can find plenty of menus on-line. They will be easier to work with and manipulate than ones that people photograph.


Suggest studying several for each different cuisine that you enjoy. For example, look up menus for seafood restaurants if you live near the coast and prefer that kind of food. (Xiamen.) Or do it by region, searching examples of restaurants in Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia that feature dishes made with wheat noodles and wheat noodle products. 面食。

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@everyone My intention is really a guide for the absolute beginner (the student who has just landed in China or someone passing through China on a short trip). The idea is to give them some basic info to get them started, to motivate them on the Chinese language learning journey, or just for fun.


I'm an intermediate student now and tons of the replies here are super helpful but I feel like I wouldn't have tried at the very beginning when I didn't know any Chinese at all.


What do you think? Should we mix beginner and intermediate level study methods here or just do one or the other?

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Here in Xiamen, the restaurants I frequent most often are the fried noodle and soup places as well as Muslim beef noodle restaurants. Are these as popular in other parts of China?


As a student, the cafeteria's are all buffet style. While it's easy to just point and say what you want it would definitely be nice to know the names of each dish or at least the main ingredient in each dish (cucumber, tomato and egg, cabbage, chicken leg, etc.) I imagine that a student cafeteria in beijing would serve dishes that are very different from Xiamen or Yunnan. Maybe people could post pics of a buffet at a local restaurant in their province/city and identify all the foods (characters, pinyin, english name)?

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The way that I learned a lot of the food words was taking menus from restaurants near me and translating them into English.  I'd have a Chinese person write them in Chinese on my computer, and then use my translation tools to come up with the English.  There are a lot of specific words that only refer to particular types of food or cooking.  Some of the vegetables don't have English names so you have to remember them by sight or taste.  After translating the menu I gave it back to the restaurant so they'd have an English menu, and kept a copy for myself so I could order from home.  I still had to speak the Chinese to give my order, but seeing the English on the menu was much better than a mass of characters. 

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Time for a joke:


Intense young guy takes his girlfriend on a date to one of New York City's finest Chinese restaurants. He is hell-bent on impressing her, and starts right in talking with the waitress about today's specials in animated, fluent Mandarin.


Waitress looks at him with surprise on her face: "Sir, you have just ordered the proprietor, stir-fried with seasonal greens, in oyster sauce." 

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It's always steamboat buffets that seem to involve the most explaining. The veg and mushrooms is always self explanatory, apart from having to tell the people the lettuce is not there to make a salad, and the raw eggs are not there to make boiled eggs. Yes you cook the stuff in the boiling soup yourself.


Then the rest of the night normally involves explaining whether the uncooked stuff on the plates at buffet, walks, swims or flies. Then what part of the animal it is. A couple of times I've had to point out that stuff isn't calamari...

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Still thinking of what direction to take this thread. Was just in a restaurant yesterday sitting across from my brother who is just starting to learn Mandarin. He couldn't read anything and I could guess what most menu items were and how to pronounce them. The only difference between he and I was me knowing a few key characters, stuff like chicken 鸡肉 ji1rou4, pork 猪肉 zhu1rou4, 汤 tang1 meaning broth/soup, noodle 面 mian4, rice dish 饭 fan4, rice noodle 粉 fen3 .


It helps to know how to speak it to the cook, but more times than not you can just point at the menu and get something close to what you want. Again, my intentions are for the absolute beginner to give them some ray of hope when they stroll into a restaurant :). During my first year here, I would usually avoid walking into restaurants without pictures just because you would have to spend 10-15 minutes writing characters into pleco, practicing the pronunciation, and then haltingly speaking to the cook, all while holding up a line of Chinese people who can order much more quickly.


Another possible idea for this thread is for people to post menus from different provinces/cities. I can't speak for anything other than Xiamen, but if you walk into any restaurant here the menus are surprisingly similar. Fried noodle, soups, fried rice, soy sauce noodles, and a few sides. Would be interesting to see if any other cities are the same way and which dishes/characters pop up most often.


Here is a pic from a hot pot stand at our local cafeteria:



@abdcefg how do you imbed pics? is that a privilege?

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