Deciphering a Chinese Menu Without Knowing Mandarin

Travel, Culture | by Charlie Cooper
Posted: February 11th, 2015 | Updated: March 2nd, 2015 | Comments

Trying a new Chinese restaurant can feel a little daunting if your usual dining experience consists of pointing at pictures while smiling. Getting out of your comfort zone is necessary if you want to be able to walk into any local restaurant with confidence. Only certain restaurants cater to foreigners and the majority do not have English. So let this guide help you understand how Chinese menus are typically organized so you can discover the not-so-hidden world of cuisine right under your nose.

Chinese Menu Organization

There are many ways a Chinese menu can be organized, from the cooking method, ingredients, serving temperature, to menus that highlight the specialties. However, dishes are generally categorized under many of the following broad categories and headings, providing a general flow that you can follow no matter what restaurant you’re in. You can't memorize every character so try and start with the key character(s) for each broad category, which will be highlighted in the example photos.

冷菜 Cold Dishes

Cold dishes (lěng cài, 冷菜) are an integral part of Chinese cuisine. Not only are they usually placed at the beginning of menus, they also get served faster. Think of them like appetizers, but don’t skip over them; they are a complex and interesting part of Chinese cuisine with many cooking methods.

They range from mixing strips of vegetables with vinegar and spices to boiling chicken then letting it sit in a cold bath of soy sauce and seasoning, and many more. Cold dishes aren’t merely cold; they should be refreshingly crisp, flavorful and have a colorful presentation.

Other Variations:

凉菜 (liángcài, cool dishes)

More common in the north, look for the character for cool: . You might also see 冷盘 (lěngpán, cold plates).

开胃菜 (kāiwèi cài, appetizers)

Literally: "open appetite dishes;" they should be a mixture of salt and sour dishes, usually cold, but if not specified in the title can be warm.

前菜 (qián cài, appetizers)

Literally "front dishes," this is the Chinese translation most used to refer to Western appetizers but has been adopted by some trendier Chinese restaurants catering to younger people who use it to refer to Chinese cold dishes. Look for .

热菜 Hot Dishes

Hot dishes (rè cài, 热菜) are hot as in temperature, not spicy. If you want spicy food, look for the character for spicy: 辣 or . These are referred to in many different ways as these dishes as they make up the bulk of most menus, often listed by the cooking method employed (see below for extensive list).

Other Variations:

小炒 (xiǎo chǎo, stir-fried)

Literally: small fried, these will be your standard stir-fried dishes. In this case, they're 广东 (Guangdong) fried delicacies. The other most common you will see is simply: 炒菜 (chǎocài, stir-fried).

热炒 (rè chǎo, stir-fried)

Literally: hot fried, this is just another simple way you'll see hot dishes listed. The third character is the traditional version of 类, which means type or kind. This is an extremely common character you will see paired with just about any category.

家常菜 (jiācháng cài, homecooked dishes)

Usually found in smaller restaurants, these dishes are considered simple dishes that are cooked at home for a big family, so look for the characters 家常. 

You will also see side dishes referred to as 小菜 (xiǎocài), small plates of food that can be both cold and hot dishes.

Some menus separate their dishes by the manner in which it is heated.

Cooking Methods

Regardles of the ingredients, many menus will use the cooking method to organize their many dishes. Here are a but a few of the many cooking methods you'll find.

汉字 Pinyin English
zhēng steamed
chǎo stir-fried
水煮 shuǐ zhǔ boiled
zhá deep-fried
红烧 hóngshāo  braised
煎< jiān sauté
kǎo baked

 

主食 Carbs

Zhǔshí (主食) are the dishes that will fill you up and are generally very carb-heavy. Often translated as “staple dishes” because they are the staple of many people’s diets, you can expect a lot of grains (gǔ lèi, 谷类): rice, noodles, wheat-based food stuffs like dumplings/breads and anything starchy.

Other Variations:

面类 (miàn lèi, noodle dishes)
饭类 (fàn lèi, rice dishes)

Rice (饭) and noodles (面) are the major carbs you'll see on most Chinese menus, and with good reason. Often when you'll ask a Chinese person, "What's good to eat around here?" They will constantly begin by asking you: "吃还是吃?" Do you want to eat noodles or rice? So on menus you just need to look for the characters: or .

汉字 Pinyin English
这里附近有什么好吃的? Zhèlǐ fùjìn yǒu shénme hǎo chī de? What's good to eat around here?
吃面还是吃饭? Chī miàn háishi chīfàn? Do you want noodles or rice?

 

招牌 Signature Dishes

These signature dishes (zhāopái, 招牌) are the ones you should look out for first, either being the dishes special to the restaurant or perhaps the culinary concoctions that will make you a lover of that cuisine. When in doubt, I recommend going for these dishes. There are also many other ways in Chinese to refer to these dishes that you'll encounter.

Other Variations:

特色 (tèsè, characteristic/special)

The ‘characteristic’ dishes are the dishes that best represent what that restaurant or cuisine have to offer. You can ask the waitress, “你们有什么特色?" What are your specials?

You'll also see the characters 推荐 (tuījiàn, recommended) placed next to certain dishes, often accompanied by a more easily identified 'thumbs up' icon. Another one is 金牌 (jīnpái, gold medal), a pun on gold medal and 招牌, another very common way to refer to the specialties on a menu.

汉字 Pinyin English
你们有什么特色? Nǐmen yǒu shénme tèsè? What are your specials?
你可以帮我推荐吗? Nǐ kěyǐ bāng wǒ tuījiàn ma? Can you recommend me something?

 

经典 (jīngdiǎn, classics)

The “classics” of a menu should be a safe bet if you are trying a new cuisine and have no idea what to order.

人气 (rén qì, popular)

Taobao users will be familiar with this phrase, the way to sort products by their popularity. This is also used to sort a menu by the dishes that are ordered most. 

小吃 Snacks  

Snacks (xiǎochī) are usually offered at the front or back of the menu, like pastries, baked goods, various 饼 (bǐng, pancakes), and sometimes street food snacks. It’s important to note that if it’s a Cantonese restaurant, then 点心 will refer to what you know as “dim sum,” while 点心 listed in non-Cantonese food menus are usually just the desserts.

Other Variations:

点心 (diǎnxīn, snacks or dim sum)

Beyond using the more complicated traditional version of “点心" for some strange reason, this Shaanxi noodle restaurant uses the term to refer to some really typical and delicious Xi'an snacks, including a ròu jiā mó (肉夹馍), which is often referred to as a Chinese hamburger but is closer to a pulled pork sandwich.

汤 Soups

Soups (tāng, 汤) will almost always get their own section, with more some restaurants specializing in soups. Chinese soups are often sour or salty, rarely contain dairy products like cream, and are a good balance for your palate when eating the greasy food often associated with stir-fried dishes. Some menus will specifiy noodle soups vs. dry noodle dishes.

Other Variations:

汤菜 (tāng cài, soups)
炖汤 (dùn tāng, stew)

You will see a huge variety of soups, from "stewed soups" (炖汤) to soup that is full of beans (dòu, 豆). You might also see 汤羹 (tāng gēng) but simply knowing the character for soup is a good start.

锅 Pot Dishes

Anything cooked in a large pot (guō), made from ceramic, stone, metal to clay, is a pot dish, with different cooking methods, such as the 炖 (stew), which are very common in Dongbei cuisine. Pot dishes will often be served in the dish that was used to cook it. And of course you have hot pot, (huǒguō, 火锅), which is a beast of its own.

Other Variations:

干锅 (gàn guō, dry pot dishes)
砂锅 (shā guō, casseroles)

Cantonese restaurants will have casseroles that make something closer to a Western casserole, otherwise think of them as hearty stews with a lot of flavor and ingredients. They are cooked in ceramic pots at high temperatures, sealing in the moisture as well as the heat. 

 

 

The other major way of separating dishes is of course by whether it is a meat dish or a vegetable dish. 

蔬菜 Vegetable Dishes

Vegetables dishes are often accompanied by 田园 (tiányuán), or "from the garden," but this doesn’t mean they are vegetarian, it just simply means the bulk of the dish consists of vegetables and will often still contain bits of pork or chicken stock for flavor. 

Other Variations:

时蔬 (shí shū, seasonal vegetables)

 

肉菜 Meat Dishes

You will need to learn the characters for each type of meat, which in Chinese it means learning [animal] + 肉 (ròu, meat). Unlike many Indo-European languages, in Mandarin there is no disconnect between the meat and what animal it's chopped out of.

Other Variations:

汉字 Pinyin English
牛肉 niúròu beef
猪肉 zhūròu  pork
羊肉 yángròu lamb
鸡肉 jī ròu chicken
鹿肉 lù ròu venison
驴肉 lǘ ròu donkey

 

海鲜 Seafood

Seafood (hǎixiān, 海鲜) will often be labeled along with just fish (, 鱼), otherwise you will see the specific sea creature's character labeled in the name of the dish. 

Other Variations:

汉字 Pinyin English
鱿鱼 yóuyú squid
xiā shrimp
龙虾 lóngxiā lobster
xiè crabs
扇贝 shàn bèi scallops

 

 

And at the back of the menu this is what you will usually find:

 

甜品 Desserts

Literally “sweet products,” (tiánpǐn, 甜品), you’ll generally see the character for sweet somewhere in the title. This particular menu specifies that they are 主食 (carbs) desserts, which means they are various cakes and sweet rolls. 

Just remember that Asian desserts are often not as sweet or rich in flavor, often using red beans, soy and glutinous rice and shaved ice.

Other Variations:

甜点 (tián diǎn, desserts)
点心 (diǎnxīn, sweets)

Just look for 甜 and you'll find them. Desserts might also be separated by whether or not they are fruit-based (shuǐguǒ, 水果) or milkshakes (nǎi xī, 奶昔). 

 

饮料 Drinks

From soda, water, juices to anything non-alcoholic, to find refreshments (yǐnliào, 饮料) on a menu, you simply need to look for the character for "drinks," , otherwise they will be separately organized in larger menus.

Other Variations:

饮品 (yǐn pǐn, drinks)

Still only need to look for 饮, but this menu also adds the word for product on the end: 品.

 

酒水 Alcoholic Drinks

Just look for the character for alcohol (jiǔ, 酒) as this also includes the phrase for drinks. It's such a ubiquitous character that you'll see it outside of shops all over Asia letting consumers know where they can go to get their drink on. 

Other Variations:

Larger menus will specify what kind of alcohol it is, everything from 白酒 (báijiǔ), 红酒 (hóngjiǔ) to 黄酒 (huángjiǔ). Go for the second cheapest and see for yourself. You might have just found a stronger alcohol to imbibe than your usual 3 RMB Tsingtao.

 

Regional Variations

Keep in mind that this is merely a primer for how many menus are organized and you will encounter some restaurants that choose to use less standard language to organize their dishes. Refer to the guide while on the go and you should have a much better idea what you're ordering. 

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