What Do You Do With Menus in Chinese Restaurants?

In China, names of food dishes, just like place names, are often very poetic or romantic sounding. Unfortunately, that often doesn’t give you a clue about what the dish actually is! For example, when we had lunch out yesterday, one of our options was a dish called “Garden Colors of Autumn” – it was in the “Most Popular Gourmet Food” section, so that didn’t help. I’m guessing it was different colored fall vegetables? What’s your guess? We didn’t actually try it, so I’m not sure.

How about this ad? This meal, “See the Moon Four Stars,” seems to have 5 dishes, the largest representing the moon and the four smaller representing four stars. But...what ARE the dishes? At least there is a picture! If you are slightly familiar with Chinese dishes, you can take a good guess!

In cities where more foreigners live or travel, at least the nicer restaurants seem to have English on their menus. These can vary greatly in their helpfulness depending on the level of English of the person who did the translation. During our years in China, we have really enjoyed reading menus as a new source of entertainment! We have quite a collection of menu photographs!

Even when there is English, there is often still some unknown ingredient and Leah and I are constantly looking up new things to learn what they are.

One place we enjoy having a cold dessert or drink is called “Hui Lau Shan,” a chain based in Hong Kong that now can be found in many locations.

After numerous times there, we decided to ask about an ingredient we didn’t recognize…. “harsmar”, also known as “hasma” and “hashima.” It turned out that it is the dried fatty tissue that surrounds a frog’s ovaries! Supposedly good for women!

Then you have times you must deal with menus that have absolutely NO English!  Or they may have single words like “Welcome” or “Tasty” in English, and everything else in Chinese…. characters, not pinyin. Pinyin is the method Chinese words are written in using English letters. When this is included, it’s easier to look a word up.

Here is our menu from the restaurant we ate at yesterday.

This chain, called “Peng Friends Gather” is popular in Dongguan, where we live, and we learned yesterday that there seem to be two types, a sit down and more of a fast food type, not even a five minute walk apart. We went to the sit down one. We’ve been to another location before and knew we liked the food. They actually gave us two menus, one had about a dozen pictures, which gave me something to do while Leah chose our food. Then, as Leah was reading the menu, I remembered an app I had downloaded, but not done much with, and recently saw recommended by a friend. The app is called “Waygo” and translates Chinese, Japanese and Korean menus and simple signs. I started playing with it, and was happy to be “reading” the menu…. then got a notice that I had reached my limit of 10 translations per day on the free version :-( I think this was where I had quit when I tried it before also, thinking I wanted to try it out more before buying. Well, the lifetime version was only $6.99usd so I decided it was worth it.

I sat this morning and did a test: I translated all the dishes in the first column of the menu. Unfortunately, the first one was somewhat discouraging!

Country Aardvark Soup????? I know they eat a lot of strange animals in China, but I also know they don’t have aardvarks! I made a visit to my personal Chinese assistant (my daughter, Leah :-), she said the characters for aardvark are literally “dirt pig”, as well as aardvark – so basically, the dish is “pork soup.” When looking up pictures, it shows the black pigs we often see pictured here in supermarkets.

I continued through the column of 28 dishes, writing down the English translations, and all but three were clear enough to me.

Then I tried a poster I had seen outside of another restaurant… what looked like pork chops, but was called “Paste the Skeleton.”

Waygo translated this as “Braised Spare ribs in brown sauce” – success!

In summary, whether you live in China, or plan to travel there, be sure to enjoy the Chinese menus, whether they have English or not! Just be ready to spend a little extra time making your selections. And…I highly recommend purchasing the Waygo app :-) At least for Chinese, I can't say anything about how it works with the other languages. (I make no profit from this!)