Eating in China: How to Order Food perfectly
Have you ever wanted to order Chinese food like a pro? Have you been to China and struggled to communicate with the restaurant staff? If so, we've go the perfect solution for you. This article will teach you everything you need to know when ordering Chinese food, from asking for a menu all the way to paying the bill. Furthermore, we will cover many of the cultural elements of ordering food in China that may be unfamiliar to someone visiting for the first time. By the time you finish studying the content of this page you will open your world to a thousand new flavours and experiences. Happy eating to you all and be sure to contact us to let us know if we helped you!
We will start by covering the most useful language to learn when visiting a restaurant. For more general language to learn when travelling in China check out our useful phrases page.
1. Booking a Table
Booking a table can be intimidating but it is the first step in the process to mastering this situation in Chinese. Table in Chinese is zhuōzi / 桌子 and to book is yùdìng / 预订. To book a table you also need to say how many people will be attending. For example if you want to book a table for four people you can say "wǒ xiǎng dìng yì zhāng sì rén zhuō / 我想订一张四人桌". If you're walking into a restaurant hoping to get a table straight away you will be asked "jǐ wèi? / 几位?" upon entry. This means "how many people?" and you can respond with the correct number followed by wèi e.g. sì wèi / 四位 - four people.
2. Getting Served
Getting served in China can be challenging if you're not used to it. Many restaurants (fànguǎn / 饭馆) are bustling and loud so attracting attention can be difficult at the best of times. In order to let the waiters know you need assistance you can try to make eye contact and call out "fúwùyuán / 服务员"(literally translating to service person). While this is common practice in mainland China, you shouldn't use it in Chinese restaurants in Taiwan, the UK or any other country as it can appear rude.
3. Asking for a Menu
"Càidān / 菜单" is menu in Chinese. If you say this word alone the waiters will understand and bring you a menu. However, it's more polite to ask "nǐ yǒu càidān ma? / 你有菜单吗?" - Have you got a menu?
4. Asking for the Price
To ask the price of anything on the menu or on display, you can say "duōshǎo qián? / 多少钱?", which means "how much?". This is often helped by pointing at or describing the thing you want the price for. For example, if you want to know how much a bowl (wǎn / 碗) or rice (mǐfàn / 米饭) costs, you can say "yī wǎn mǐfàn duōshǎo qián? / 一碗米饭多少钱?".
5. Portion Sizes
Portion sizes can be difficult to gauge from a menu alone and knowing the correct terminology can be useful when asking questions about the dishes you wish to order. Some key terms include "fèn / 分" - portion, "wǎn / 碗" - bowl and "pán / 盘" - plate. Fèn is particularly useful when ordering countable things like jiǎozi (dumplings), where you can ask "yī fèn yǒu duōshǎo jiǎozi? / 一份有多少饺子?" - "How many dumplings in one portion?".
6. Ordering the Special
Many Chinese restaurants specialise in a certain type of food, for example dim sum (diǎnxīn / 点心), roast duck (kǎoyā / 烤鸭) or hotpot (huǒguō / 火锅). To enquire about a restaurant's speciality dish, you can ask for their "zhāopái cài / 招牌菜". This phrase is guaranteed to impress when used correctly and will definitely help you discover some delicious treats!
7. Ordering Vegetarian
Ordering vegetarian can be difficult in China as a lot of the dishes contain or are flavoured with meat. However, it's important to remember that there is a large vegetarian Buddhist community in China and therefore many vegetarian options available if you ask. With very convincing meat substitutes like tofu (dòufu / 豆腐) making up a lot of the menu, it can be difficult to tell whether you are eating meat of not! To tell someone you are vegetarian you can say "wǒ chīsù / 我吃素" or you can simply say I do not eat meat - "wǒ bùnéng chī ròu / 我不能吃肉".
8. Dealing with Allergies
Mandarin for allergic is "guòmǐn / 过敏". As an example, to tell someone you're allergic to peanuts, you can say "wǒ duì huāshēng guòmǐn / 我对花生过敏".
9. Asking for Cutlery
In most Chinese restaurants you will be given chopsticks (kuàizi / 筷子) and a spoon (sháozi / 勺子) as standard. Other words worth knowing are "chāzi / 叉子" (fork) and "dāo / 刀" (knife). To ask for any of these you can use the same process as asking for a menu e.g. "nǐ yǒu chāzi ma? / 你有叉子吗?" - Do you have a fork?
10. Asking for the Bill
So you've finished your meal and you want to pay the bill. To do so simply find a waiter and say "fúwùyuán mǎidān / 服务员买单" and they will either bring you the cheque or let you know where to pay.
11. Saying Goodbye
As you're leaving the restaurant you may hear one of several things. For example service staff may say "zàijiàn / 再见" (goodbye) or "màn zǒu / 慢走". This literally translates to "go slowly" in English and is a polite way for them to wish you a safe journey and express their desire for you to return soon. To reply politely you can simply say "xièxiè, zàijiàn / 谢谢再见" - thank you and see you again.
While knowing the language is incredibly useful, there are also a number of cultural conventions to be aware of when ordering food in Chinese, in China or otherwise. Understanding these can help you come across as polite and catapult your understanding of Chinese language and etiquette to new heights.
1. Attracting Attention
If you've ever travelled to China and tried to order food in a bar or restaurant, you may have found it particularly difficult to attract the attention of the person serving you. This is something many foreigners struggle with as serving staff are often used to being called over. Unlike in the UK, it isn't considered rude to shout for service and if you don't do this you will have to wait a really long time to get served. The best thing to do is try to make eye contact and call out clearly enough for them to hear you. Please also remember that this is only applicable when ordering food in mainland China. If you do this is a Chinese restaurant in Taiwan or the UK it will still be considered rude so be careful.
Tipping is actually quite rare in China as the cost of service is presumed to be included in the meal. Many waiters will actually refuse tips if offered so you shouldn't feel obliged to offer one. If you really would like to, then you still can. It's unlikely to be seen as rude but expect to have it handed back to you before you leave the restaurant. As with calling for service, this is only applicable when travelling in China itself. For Chinese restaurants outside of China we recommend following the local rules .
3. Drinking Alcohol
Drinking alcohol is a big part of business dinners and family reunions in China. ”Báijiǔ/ 白酒” is a favourite but other drinks such as wine, beer and whiskey are also common to have with a meal. While you may feel free to order and drink these beverages as you are comfortable, it's worth noting that traditionally, drinking at Chinese meals follows a different process to how it's done in the West. For example, at a Chinese meal, you will rarely see a person drinking on their own. Each person makes a toast and then everyone drinks together. If you want to fit in and truly experience the Chinese way of doing things then you should try to observe these same rules. As with any country, be careful not to drink too much!
Another striking thing to be aware of when ordering food in Chinese is the use of the word please. In English we use this word a lot, especially when requesting things. However, when ordering food in Chinese it's often better to be direct. While in English we might say "please can I have a bowl of noodles?", if you directly translate this into Chinese you get "qǐng gěi wǒ yī wǎn miàntiáo / 请给我一碗面条", which sounds like you're asking for a free bowl of noodles. To say this correctly you can simply say "gěi wǒ yī wǎn miàntiáo / 请给我一碗面条" (give me a bowl of noodles) or "wǒ yào yī wǎn miàntiáo / 我要一碗面条" (I want a bowl of noodles). While these sound rude when directly translated to English, they are not in Mandarin.
5. Finishing Your Food
In England we're taught from a young age that you should finish all the food on your plate at the end of every meal. However in Chinese culture it's considered rude not to order enough food for everyone. Therefore if there's no food left at the end of the meal it suggests the diners were not satisfied and more food will be ordered. This isn't a big deal if you're ordering food for yourself but be sure to leave a little food at the end of the night if you eat at someone's house or they treat you to dinner in a restaurant. This phenomena is illustrated beautifully by the famous eel advert for HSBC.
6. Complementing the Food
As with most cultures, it's an extremely high compliment to have your food praised. It not only shows friendship and gratitude, it also exhibits a willingness to try new things and involve yourself in somebody else's culture. Food and hospitality are both very important parts of Chinese life and showing your gratitude for these things will be very well received. To say something is delicious you can use the phrase ”hào chī / 好吃“.
No you have all the tools you need to order food in Mandarin you need to go out and practise! We know this can be intimidating but it is important to remember that people will respect you for trying to communicate with them in their language. As long as you are polite and show you are trying they will be patient with you and help you learn what you need to know.
For more help mastering this situation and others, you can book some Mandarin lessons with one of our teachers. We also run tons of cultural experiences so you might find yourself at an authentic Chinese restaurant before you know it!