If you’re on a tour it is likely that you will be taken to a Westernised Chinese restaurant specifically designed for tourists and meals are either pre-selected for you or your tour guide will order for you. But if you want to venture out and ‘get the good stuff’ as they say it’s good to have an idea of some of the situations you are likely to encounter. So to help make your culinary adventure in China a little easier to navigate I’ve put together a short guide to help make the experience just that little bit easier.
What to look for when picking a restaurant
1. How busy is it?
Check to see if the place you have chosen to eat at is busy. If it is, that is a good sign that the food is going to be good.
2. Who is eating there?
If the place you have chosen to eat at is full of locals that is great sign. Just like in any home-town the locals know always seem to know best. You can find a lot of gems –not listed in any guidebook- this way.
How to order (depending on the scenario)
In Shanghai or Beijing you might be lucky enough to find/have a server that speaks a little English and will be able to make your ordering experience easier, but this will not always be the case. After a little personal trial and error in all the imaginable ordering scenarios in China I managed to develop a simple process/guide to help when ordering food. It is an easy guide, you simply start at the top (1) and continue down the list until one of the steps works for your situation.
Ask if anyone speaks English. If there is someone in the restaurant that speaks English ordering verbally should be easy enough. I always recommend supporting your verbal order by pointing to menu items when possible.
If no-one speak English…
See if the restaurant has English and Chinese writing on the menu. Given this situation where the menu has translations you should be able to –at the very least- select your dishes by reading the menu.
If not there is no menu translations…
Look for pictures on the menu. You will be surprised to find out just how far you can get with pointing to a picture on a menu then showing the quantity you want to order on your fingers.Beware: If you simply rely on menu picture you may be in for a surprise. Dishes with tofu or various meats can be easily confused with beef, pork or duck hearts, especially once they’re smothered in sauce. So unless you’re adventurous or willing to accept that ignorance is bliss it may be best to try and avoid relying on pictures.
If there are no pictures on the menu…
Given the worst case scenario you may have to pull out my favourite ordering trick in the book. I call it ‘the walk and point’. When all other forms of communication fail simply walk through the restaurant, look at what everyone in the restaurant is eating and point out to a server what you want.
Note: There is usually one dish that will be common amongst all the tables of diners. This dish is usually a safe bet as the locals know the specialties of the restaurants. Using this method I managed to order a tasty dinner of spicy chicken pieces, potatoes and noodles in an arbitrary Xi’an teahouse.
Top 5 Traveler Tips
Food courts in shopping centers –which are extremely common in bigger cities – are a great and reliable place to go when all else fails. They’re often located on the highest level of shopping centers and offer a great variety of dishes, making it easy to satisfy even the fussiest of travelers.
Think twice before eating at a street market. Under the guidance of a tour guide you may be able to find a few dishes that you will be able to try however with no hygiene or food preparation standards stomachs not use to such food may wind up seeing the fun of the holiday come to a stop. Be wary.
Backup Any Verbal Communication
It is always best to support your verbal communication whilst ordering –or in any scenario- with gestures. This will ensure that even if a server doesn’t quite understand what you are ordering, by pointing at the menu item they will be likely to get it right.
Look To The Locals
When you’re struggling to pick a restaurant or menu item in my experience it is always best to look to the locals. Just like in your own home town the locals always know the best places and menu items. You can find a lot of wonderful restaurants and foods that you won’t find in any guidebook by looking to the locals for guidance.
Just like any part of travelling being adventurous is key. If you are open to trying new experiences and foods you will be a lot more likely to enjoy yourself. China has a lot of foods that you might not have tried or that are not familiar, being able to look, taste and enjoy them –or possibly not enjoy them- is just part of the experience. So get out there and get the most out of your adventure!