How To Read A Chinese Menu
|benchilada @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0|
I am actually despondent about this; this is a huge blow, because before I learned any proper Chinese, this was my survival guide to eating well in restaurants where beef and broccoli and orange chicken were most definitely not on the menu.
I'm certainly not going to re-create it: it was a masterwork. That said, there are several really important characters you can learn to decipher the Chinese-only menu, or to turn the terrible English translation into actual food. If this proves popular, perhaps we'll make it an occasional feature.
First of all, you have to know that there are not one but two Chinese writing systems: Traditional Chinese, which is used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, by most overseas Chinese and on pretty much every Chinese menu in the United States, and Simplified Chinese, which is used in the majority of the People's Republic of China and by more recent arrivals. Where the characters differ, the Traditional character is first.
If you can't see the characters, you may need to set your page encoding to Unicode. Do this in the View menu of your browser (and don't forget to set it back if you want to).
Like Mei Wah, this isn't going to teach you to order in Chinese, unless you learn how to write these (hint: stroke order matters!); it's meant to steer you in the right direction.
Let's start with protein: if nothing else, you can identify at least that you are not about to have sautéed frog.
Meat. When it's not qualified with anything else, this means pork; pork is the default meat in China. Meat doesn't refer to poultry, seafood or fish in Chinese, which is why when vegetarians say they don't eat meat, they may be given fish, despite the fact that fish is not a vegetable.
豬肉 or 猪肉
If you absolutely have to differentiate pork from other meats (for example, "I don't eat pork but I do eat beef"), this is the qualifier; the first word means pig, but you probably could have guessed that.
叉燒 or 叉烧
Char siu. This is the violently red, sweet, sticky barbecued pork that shows up in such thing as 叉燒包 (try and figure out which popular dim sum dish that is). It literally means "fork roasted". Notice the absence of the words pork or meat in there. There's only one fork-roasted meat and 1.2 billion people know what it means.
Beef. Literally, this means "cow meat". Now you know how to write "cow" in Chinese, which would come in useful later if there were such things as butter or milk in Chinese cuisine.
Lamb. There's a famous chain of Sichuan hotpot restaurants called 小肥羊, which means "Little Fat Sheep".
雞 or 鸡
Chicken. You will not only see this when referring to the actual meat, but you'll also see it in the construct 雞蛋 (or 鸡蛋). Chinese people eat lots of eggs that are not chicken eggs; though chicken eggs are the most common, it's still often necessary to talk about what kind of egg it is.
田雞 or 田鸡
Just because you see the character for chicken does not mean you are off the hook. The word 田 means field (Iowans in the readership will know that it's a section split into quarters), and a field chicken is a frog. Incidentally, in case you've got Miss Manners writing the menu, the preceding is slangy; if you see 青蛙, that's the proper word for frog.
鴨 or 鸭
Duck. This is actually easier to see in the simplified writing; the radical on the right side is the same.