You are in China on holiday, business trip, starting an expat experience, what’s your first thought? How will I survive in Chinese? Do I need to learn Mandarin Chinese? Even if you are not fluent, you better learn some of the Chinese words that will help you ensure survival: how to order food.
As soon as you walk in any restaurant in China, you will be welcomed by a waiter/waitress who will ask you how many people you are with: Ji wei? (几位?).
Once you told him/her how many (yi/liang/san/si/wu ge ren 一/两/三/四/五个人), he/she will bring you to your table, inviting you to have a sit: Qing zuo zher ba (请坐这儿吧)!
Once at the table, if they don’t bring you the menu straight away or they bring less menus than needed, you might ask for one in Mandarin Chinese: Cai dan (菜单).
The first thing the waiter will ask you is what you would like to drink: Ni xiang he shenme? (你想喝什么?)
Some menus come with English translation or pictures, which allow you to just point at what you want to drink, but if your restaurant is not the case, here are some of the most popular orders:
A glass of water: yi bei shui (一杯水); A bottle of water: yi ping shui (一瓶水)
Orange juice: ju zhi (橘汁)
Flower tea: hua cha (花茶)
Two glasses of beer: Liang bei pi jiu (两杯啤酒); A bottle of beer: yi ping pi jiu (一瓶啤酒)
Red wine: hong jiu (红酒).
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Chinese cuisine is very diverse and delicious, and this means that it can also be tricky at times. Certainly, it’s difficult for vegetarian, as Chinese people have a hard time even understanding what being vegetarian means. Meat is widely present in Chinese culinary tradition, and ordering strictly vegetarian is difficult, to the extent that pure vegetarians will need to list all the ingredients they don’t want: beef, pork, chicken, duck, fish.
In this case, it’s useful to know how to say it in Mandarin Chinese, as most waiters don’t speak English.
– I don’t eat meat: Wo bu chi rou (我不吃肉)
– I don’t want pork: Wo bu yao zhu rou (我不要猪肉)
– I don’t want beef : Wo bu yao niu rou (我不要牛肉)
– I don’t want chicken: Wo bu yao ji (我不要鸡)
– I don’t want fish: Wo bu yao yu (我不要鱼)
Other types of typical Chinese food or traditional dishes you might want to try are the dumplings, they have a huge variety and they are very delicious: shrimp dumplings (xia jiao 虾饺), dumplings made of rice flour served in a soup (tang yuan 汤圆), spring rolls (chun juan 春卷).
Some of the most popular dishes are Sweet and Sour Pork (Tang cu rou 糖醋肉), Diced Pork in Bean Sauce (Jiang bao rou ding 酱爆肉丁), Diced Fried Pork with Pineapple (Gu lao rou 咕咾肉), fried noodles (chao mian 炒面), noodles served with soup (dao xiao mian 刀削面), noodles served with fried bean sauce (zha jiang mian 炸酱面).
Usually dishes are best eaten with steamed rice (mi fan 米饭), and if you want to order one, you will ask: Qing lai yi wan mi fan (请来一碗米饭). The typical flavors of Chinese cuisine in Mandarin are: sweet (tian 甜), sour (suan 酸), spicy (la 辣), salty (xian 咸).
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When you have chosen your dishes, you call back the waiter to place the order: Fu wu yuan (服务员)!
As you know, the Chinese use chopsticks (kuai zi 筷子) to eat, but if you are not comfortable with them you can always ask for fork and knife, most restaurants have them.
So if you want fork and knife you can ask: Qing (pronounced [chin]) gei wo yi fu dao cha (请给我一副刀叉). Same question for the spoon: Qing gei wo yi ge shaozi (请给我一个勺子); or for a plate: Qing gei wo yi ge panzi (请给我一个盘子).
If you are traveling to China and need a bit of quick help to get by in Chinese language you might find very handy this 6-page Chinese Vocabulary, a guide divided into tables that show Chinese characters, the pinyin (transliteration of Chinese characters into Latin alphabet) and the English translation.
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After you finished eating what you have ordered, the waiter will ask you if you want anything else: Hai yao shenme? (还要什么?). If you are done and you just want the bill (mai dan), your reply will be: Jiu zhexie le, mai dan (就这些了,买单).
Usually, they bring the receipt, but if they don’t, you can ask for it in Mandarin Chinese: Qing gei wo fapiao (请给我发票).
In China, there is not the custom to leave the tip, and it’s not expected, it’s entirely up to you if you want to leave something and how much.
When you are leaving the restaurant, unless you really didn’t like the food, you might want to say “Thank you” and “Goodbye”:
Xie xie, zai jian (谢谢,再见)!