Deciding what you want to eat can be very difficult when you love food.
But deciding what you want from a foreign-language menu?
That’s even harder.
There are so many aspects of eating out that can be super stressful, and all that’s heightened when you’re in a new country.
So for a Mandarin learner, the prospect of ordering food in Chinese for the first time is likely to be pretty intimidating.
Sure, McDonald’s and other places now have self-serve kiosks in China that make ordering a breeze, as well as food delivery apps that take away all your restaurant-related anxieties.
But realistically, how often can you avoid the inevitable?
You can’t just decline every birthday dinner invite. And why would you want to?
Basic Things to Know About Chinese Food Culture
Most of the time when foreigners describe their dining experiences in China as unpleasant, it’s because they haven’t accepted certain differences between Chinese culture and their own.
Every nation has their own eating culture, and it’s important to keep an open mind in order to thoroughly enjoy the food as well as the company you share the food with. Knowing how to order food in Mandarin is only half the battle.
Let’s take a brief look at some key characteristics of Chinese food culture you’ll need to understand to make your Chinese dining experiences as delightful as possible:
- Meals are a social activity. — In the West, adults often meet over food and/or drinks at restaurants and bars, but in China (and Asian cultures in general) they’re more likely to socialize with family or friends over a meal in family-friendly establishments.
- Chinese restaurants are normally very noisy. — Crowds and long lines are signs of great food, and people often associate the noise level of an eatery with the quality of its dishes.
- Dishes are shared. — Unless it’s a fast food joint, cafeteria-style restaurant or Western establishment, most of the items on the menu are sharing plates rather than individual servings. Round tables with Lazy Susans, along with big serving dishes, all fit in with the communal theme in Chinese food culture, and knowing this will help you in terms of how much food you should be ordering for your group.
- The more food, the better. — When dining with Chinese friends, don’t be surprised by the huge amount of food left over, as leftovers are a sign of wealth and generosity. It might seem wasteful to order that much food, but you can always pack it up at the end of the meal.
This video on Chinese dining etiquette can give you some additional prep.
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Ready to take on these restaurants yet? No worries if you aren’t. Going through this step-by-step guide to ordering food in Mandarin will make the task less daunting.
How to Order Food in Mandarin and Never Go Hungry Again!
Step 1: Getting a Table
When stepping into a restaurant, there are several phrases that you might be greeted with. Assuming that you’re going out for a meal with friends during peak hours, those greetings might be accompanied by phrases that indicate how busy the place is currently.
Here are a few things you might hear when you walk into a restaurant.
欢迎光临! (huān yíng guāng lín!) — Welcome!
请稍等一下。 (qǐng shāo děng yí xià.) — Please wait a moment.
对不起,没有位子了。 (duì bù qǐ, méi yǒu wèi zi le.) — Sorry, we are full/have no more seats left.
In addition to these phrases, here are a few questions the waitstaff might ask you (and how you could potentially respond to them).
A: 你预定一张桌子了吗？ (nǐ yù dìng yī zhāng zhuō zi le ma?) — Have you booked a table/made a reservation?
B: 没有。 (néi yǒu.) — No, I haven’t.
B: 预定了。名字是Sheena。(yù dìng le. míng zì shì Sheena.) — Yes. (Reservation) name is under Sheena.
A: 请问几位？ (qǐng wèn jī wèi?) — (Table) for how many?
B: 五位。 (wǔ wèi.) — (Table) for five.
A: 抽烟吗？ (chōu yān ma?) — Smoking or non-smoking?
B: 抽烟。 (chōu yān.) — Smoking.
A: 现在没有位子。你能等十五分钟吗？ (xiàn zài méi yǒu wèi zi. nǐ néng děng shí wǔ fēn zhōng ma?) — We have no seats at the moment. Are you willing to wait for 15 minutes?
B: 没问题。 (méi wèn tí.) — Sure, no problem.
Step 2: Browsing the Menu
At this point, the waiter or waitress will show you to your table. Depending how busy the place is, the waitstaff might not hand you a menu right away. In this case, you can flag down a server by calling them 服务员 (fú wù yuán). Some textbooks might teach you that 小姐 (xiǎo jiě) or “Miss” is an appropriate way to address a waitress, but in China, it’s slang for prostitute, so best to stick with the respectable term 服务员.
Here’s what you can ask once you have a server’s attention:
菜单 (cài dān) — May we have a menu?
__ 杯水 (__ bēi shǔi) — May we have __ glasses of water?
一壶茶 (yī hú chá) — May we have a pot of tea?
Some restaurants will have English and Chinese menus or menus with pictures, which makes it miles easier for foreigners to order food. However, there will be places that have neither English nor pictures. While you can use your handy translation apps, you have to learn the words at some point. Not saying you have to memorize all of the names of typical Chinese dishes, but knowing certain characters will offer clues on which type of meat is used in certain menu items, and the method used to cook those dishes.
Here’s a list of ingredients you might come across:
蛋 (dàn) — egg
肉 (ròu) — meat
羊 (yáng) — lamb
猪 (zhū) — pork
牛 (niú) — beef
鸡 (jī) — chicken
鸭 (yā) — duck
鱼 (yú) — fish
虾 (xiā) — shrimp
鱿鱼 (yóu yú) — squid
蔬菜 (shū cài) — vegetables
饭 (fàn) — rice
面 (miàn) — noodles
And here are some characters that determine how the food is cooked:
烤 (kǎo) — roasted
炒 (chǎo) — stir-fried
拉面 (lā miàn) — pulled noodles
辣 (là) — spicy
清蒸 (qīng zhēng) — steamed
排 (pái) — steak, fillet, chop
焖 (mèn) — braised
油 (yǒu) — (in) oil
汤 (tāng) — soup
小菜 (xiǎo cài) — cold/side dish
Step 3: Ordering Your Food in Mandarin
When you’re ready to order, call over the 服务员 and say “点菜 (diǎn cài),” literally meaning “order food.”
Still want to clarify a couple things before placing your order? Feel free to ask any of these questions below:
有没有素食? (yǒu méi yǒu sù shí?) — Are there vegetarian/vegan dishes?
这个很辣吗？ (zhè ge hěn là ma?) — Is this very spicy?
今天有什么特别的菜吗? (jīn tiān yŏu shén me tè bié de cài ma?) — What is today’s special?
你推荐什么菜吗? (nǐ tuī jiàn shén me cài ma?) — What dish do you recommend?
Those questions should clear up any last minute concerns you have about the menu, so by now you should be ready to order using this sentence:
我要__份__。 (wǒ yào __ fèn __.) — I would like/want __ plate(s)/order(s) of __.
Let’s say you’re ordering two plates of egg fried rice for the group. Using the formula above, you would say:
我要两份蛋炒饭。 (wǒ yào liǎng fèn dàn chǎo fàn.) — I would like two orders of egg fried rice.
But what if you don’t know how to pronounce your order, or are referring to the pictures? All you have to do is point to the picture and say:
我要一份这个。 (wǒ yào yī fèn zhè ge.) — I would like one order of this.
份 (fèn) is the measure word for plates or dishes. If you want to order drinks, you would use this formula:
我要__杯__。 (wǒ yào __ bēi __.) — I want __ glass(es) of __.
我要七杯橙汁。 (wǒ yào qī bēi chéng zhī.) — I would like seven glasses of orange juice.
我要三杯这个。 (wǒ yào sān bēi zhè ge.) — I would like three glasses of this.
If your drink comes in a can, replace 杯 (bēi) in the formula with 听 (tīng). If your drink comes in a bottle, you would use 瓶 (píng) as your measure word.
Step 4: Receiving Your Order
It’s finally time to receive your order! For sharing plates, the server will just say the name of the dish and place it in the middle. If you’ve ordered something for yourself, you can respond to the 服务员 with “我的 (wǒ de),” or “That’s mine.”
Sometimes, orders get mixed up or take longer than expected. In those instances, you can say to your server:
这不是我点的。 (zhè bú shì wǒ diǎn de.) — This isn’t what I ordered.
我点的菜还没到。 (wǒ diǎn de cài hái méi dào.) — The food I ordered hasn’t arrived yet.
Sometimes, what you order won’t be enough. Here are a few things you might tell the waiter to add more food to the table:
还要点一份这个。 (hái yào diǎn yī fèn zhè ge.) — I would like to order one more of this dish.
你还可以加两碗米饭吗？ (nǐ hái kě yǐ jiā liǎng wǎn mǐfàn ma?) — Can you add two more bowls of rice?
你们有什么甜点？ (nǐmen yǒu shén me tián diǎn?) — What desserts do you have?
Step 5: Paying the Bill
Now it’s time to pay the bill. Let your server know you’re ready by saying, “服务员，买单 (fú wù yuán, mǎi dān),” literally meaning, “Waiter, bill.”
You’ll also need to specify whether you want one bill or separate bills, so in addition, you’d tell your waiter:
一起付。 (yī qǐ fù) — Pay together.
分开付。 (fēn kāi fù) — Pay separately.
Out of cash, or 现金 (xiàn jīn), and need to pay via other means? Luckily, there are a lot of other ways you can pay your bill in China. Ask your server:
刷卡可以吗？ (shuā kǎkě yǐ ma?) — Can I pay by (debit/credit) card?
微信可以吗？ (wēi xìn kě yǐ ma?) — Can I pay by WeChat?
支付宝可以吗？ (zhī fù bǎo kě yǐ ma?) — Can I pay by AliPay?
Apple Pay可以吗？ (Apple Pay kě yǐ ma?) — Can I pay by Apple Pay?
And if there are any leftovers you want to take home, just point to the dish and say “打包 (dǎbāo),” meaning “Take it to go” or “Pack it up.” However, if you’re in Hong Kong, 打包 (dǎbāo) takes on different meanings: “packing a dead body,” and literally, “hit bread.”
So when you’re in this region, you’ll have to say “带走 (dài zǒu),” or “take away,” instead to avoid any confusion!
This is more than enough to get you started. Good luck on your food adventures!
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