Ordering food when you don’t speak the language

One of the most difficult things I face when arriving in a new country is figuring out what to order at local restaurants. This issue is only compounded when you not only don’t speak a language but you can’t even begin to read the letters.  That has been the case for me in every country we have visited so far on this trip: Russia, Mongolia and China.

Most of the time, when I walk into a reasturant the menu looks something like this:


You can always try the point at random and hope for the best, but you might end up with this:

Or worse.

So what can you do to get something a little more suitable to your palette? You could eat at all English restaurants but thats boring and expensive. Here are my tried and true methods for getting good food at even the most English-less restaurant.

Try the old look and point

This is the easiest of the methods but has the potential to be extremely socially awkward. The gist is, in a crowded restaurant you walk around until you see something the strikes your fancy and then you indicate to your server that you are interested in eating that item. 

As I said, it can be a bit socially awkward as you walk around peering at people’s tables and then pointing to their entrees. However, it does seem to be the best way to get exactly what you ordered.

Sometimes, and by sometimes I mean a lot of times, you are the only one dining – so there is nothing to point at. Time for plan B.

Ask for an English or Picture Menu

Its surprising how many places have an English or picture menu available – if you can only explain that is what you need. Most people do seem to get the gist when you walk in speaking gibberish, but otherwise the a lot of people know the words “English Menu.”

The other option is just to look around and see if you can see picture menu on the wall. This is very common, especially in China, but they are oddly sometimes hidden. In Mongolia, I went through 15 minutes of the “look and point” and ate my meal before discovering a giant picture menu on the back wall. Ugh.

Draw Pictures

This only works for the must patient and good natured of servers, but if you do find one you can always illustrate your food preferences.

Chicken? Beef? No Meat? Try your best to illustrate (or act out) these needs and see what turns up on your plate.

We went through a long game of pictionary with some ladies in Russia and ended up with pretty much what we wanted. Even better, the ladies found it hilarious and laughed about it for a long time more than I would have expected.

Carry your own menus

When we arrived in China, one of our hostels printed off two random Chinese menus with both English and Mandarin translations. Obviously not every place will have everything, but is a good jumping off point.

Usually we point to “dumplings” or “noodles” and something delicious comes out of the kitchen. We also have the words for “Chicken, Beef, and Pork” so we can make sure we are eating the correct meats.

In addition, Tejal is vegetarian so we got the phrase “I don’t eat meat” written out in Mandarin.

Showing these items at eateries has been very helpful in narrowing down a menu item.

Eat Street Food

This is the easiest of all the above. On the street, you can see exactly what is being cooked – the ingredients and the final product. You simply point and indicate how much you want and you instantly have hot, amazing food to eat.


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2 Responses to Ordering food when you don’t speak the language

  1. We managed to make it all the way to China (so, 3 countries…) before we had to whip out the old, just point at what someone else is eating trick. I felt kind of awkward doing it, but I just reminded myself that where spitting and staring aren’t considered rude, surely pointing at someone’s meal and saying I wanted that would not be taboo either.

    It worked, we got what we wanted, and the person whose meal we pointed at seemed to be amused by the whole thing!

  2. Dave says:

    Ya you really nailed this for us. We dealt with this a lot in Korea and did a lot of pointing. In most cases Korean food isn’t “that” strange compared to what I’m comfortable with, but we did order chicken feet with a side of silk worms once…

    In China it’s going to be a lot of pointing at what others are eating – I don’t care if it’s rude.

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