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Chinese Restaurant Menus and How to Use Them

Written by Candice SongUpdated Jan. 8, 2021

In China your first Chinese restaurant visits and use of Chinese menus might cause frustration, especially if the menus are not written in English and there aren't pictures of the dishes.

Here you'll l earn what Chinese menus are like and how to use them. You'll also find links for all of our food pages with menus for a variety of kinds of dishes and translations from Chinese to English to help you select the foods you'd like.

How Chinese Restaurant Meals are Set Up

Having Dinner TogetherIn Chinese restaurants, the many different dishes on the menu are usually shared.

Eating Chinese food at a typical authentic Chinese restaurant is generally very social. People sit around the table to share a selection of different dishes that are placed in the center of the table instead of each having their own. This can make eating Chinese food rather fun.

It is customary in China to select one dish for each person at the table. This means that if you have a group of 5 people, you might select 2 meat dishes and 3 vegetable dishes, but it's up to you. Appetizers, entrees, or desserts are optional as is the choice of beverages.

How to Use Chinese Menus

Chinese DishA variety of dishes that people share are selected and placed in the middle of the table.

Chinese menus are often helpfully separated into sections such as "rice dishes", "noodle dishes", "vegetables", and "beverages" (see food type links below), and they are not usually separated into sections such as "lunch" and "dinner" as in Western menus.

What you need to do is choose the dishes you'd want from the array on the menu that you think will make for a good meal. So, choose from the various meat, vegetable, rice, noodle, etc. dishes, and order extra sides, beverages, and dessert to complete your meal.

Keep in mind that the taste and style of a Chinese dish will vary depending on the restaurant. Nevertheless, knowing the translation for some typical dishes can help you get close. For more pointers, see How to Order Chinese Food.

How the Dishes You Order Arrive — 'Just In Time' Dining

Unlike in the West, where at most sit-down restaurants, the whole meal is prepared and served at one time, in China there's a "just in time" approach. The cooks will usually decide to cook the dishes in an order that makes sense to them, and the dishes will arrive at varying times when they are ready. You might finish eating some dishes before the others have arrived.

What this means for you is that you can get shorter waiting times after you order initially, and often hotter food will arrive than what you would get if the whole meal arrived at one time. But it also means your favorite side dish or even your favorite main course might not arrive until the middle or near the end of your meal! This might be frustrating if you have to wait for your favorites, but you could tell the waiter beforehand what you want to be brought out first.

Chinese Menu Items for Various Chinese Food Types

We have provided menus on our various food type pages with the names of dishes written in English and Chinese characters. This means you can select the dish using its English name and point to the Chinese to order. Chinese wording and pronunciations are also included for you to listen for and for ordering verbally. Here's an example showing some lamb dishes:

English Chinese Pronunciation Characters
Xinjiang Roast Whole Lamb Xinjiang Kao Quan Yang Sshyin-jyang kao-chwen-yang 新疆烤全羊
Northeast Mutton Slice Hot Pot Dongbei Shuan Yangrou Dong-bay shwann yang-roh 东北涮羊肉
Inner Mongolia Roast Mutton Menggu Kaorou Mnng-goo kao-roh 蒙古烤肉

The Major Chinese Regional Cuisines

Chinese Food Menu: Dim SumDim sum is Cantonese cuisine.

If you are not familiar with China, you might assume that the cuisine all over China is the same. Definitely NOT! The style and tastes of the available dishes vary greatly from region to region. But you'll usually find a variety of styles of restaurants available in every city, so purview this list and choose your favorites!

See more on The Eight Regional Cuisines of China

Main Course Menus

Here is our list of typical Chinese main course dish menus for your information and use.

For example, if you know of or have heard of a specific beef dish you want to order, you can look for it under the 'beef dishes' list and either show the waiter on your device or say it to him. Pronunciations are also included. The menus below have the names of dishes written in English and Chinese characters.

Poached Sliced Beef in Hot Chili OilPoached sliced beef in hot chili oil

Soups, Sides, Desserts, and Snacks

Chinese DumplingsDumplings (Jiaozi) are a tourist favorite side dish/snack.

Customary Provided Beverages

black teaTea is customarily provided in China's restaurants.

Drinks are also optional. Unlike what you might assume, tea is not provided as a matter of course in all regions of China, though it is provided in many local-style restaurants in regions such as Guangdong and Hong Kong.

In many regions, a broth or a kind of light soup is provided that differs according to the region, and many restaurants will simply offer water. The water might be boiled hot water that is more traditional or sometimes cold or bottled. Again, it depends on the region or kind of restaurant.

Food Allergies and Special Requirements

Unfortunately, kosher restaurants and restaurants catering for food allergies are almost non-existent in China. If you have a food allergy or other requirements, see How to Handle Food Allergies When Traveling in China for help on explaining to the restaurant staff how they should prepare your food.

Travel with Us to Taste Authentic Chinese Cuisines

Enjoying Chinese Cuisine

If you want to try China's authentic local foods, our tours will take you to the best local restaurants.

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