What composes a meal at a restaurant?
Generally, at a restaurant, one will order rice, a bowl per person, soup, also a bowl per person, and then a combination of vegetable and meat dishes. These also need to have a balance, between sweet, sour, heavy, light and salty. Also, if spicy dishes are ordered, there is often a tendency to order something to counter the spiciness (for example, a dish containing bitter melon, or cucumber).
Soups hold a special role within the meal, as different soups serve different nutritional purposes. For example, chicken and mushroom soup is believed to be good for women after giving birth, as it helps to clear out your system. Liver and spinach soup is traditionally recommended for people with low iron levels, while fish and papaya soup is good for nursing mothers. Even chicken soup, as often used to combat illness in the West, was traditionally believed to be healing in China; the chicken is sometimes combined with spinach (in order to aid digestion).
How to decipher the dishes with basic Chinese
Within Chinese names for different dishes, there are some key characters that can help you to understand what you are ordering. For example, there is generally a character for the method of cooking, the type of meat used, the way the meat is cut, and the vegetable. This Is very handy, but only if you can read the characters.
For the method of cooking, there are four main characters:
炒 chao (in pinyin)，which means fry
煮zhu (in pinyin)，which stands for boiled
干锅ganguo (in pinyin), which means dry-cooked in a pot
炸zha (in pinyin) which means it is deep-fried. There are of course other, but this is a good place to start.
Now for type of meat. The following are the five most common meats used in Chinese cooking:
猪肉zhurou (in pinyin) is pork, probably the most common meat you’ll find here
牛肉niurou (in pinyin) is beef
鸡肉jirou (in pinyin) is chicken
鱼yu (in pinyin) is fish.
It is also vital to remember that if no type of meat is specified, the character 肉rou, for meat, will usually stand for pork.
With regards to how the meat and vegetables are cut:
丁ding (in pinyin) means cubes
块kuai (in pinyin) means pieces
丝si (in pinyin) means strips.
Identifying these characters will help you understand what the dish will look like. Then, finally, vegetable names like broccoli西兰花xilanhua，potato 土豆tudou，bitter melon 苦瓜kugua，tomato 西红柿xihongshi，aubergine 茄子qiezi，runner beans 豆角doujiao and cabbage 白菜baicai often appear too, as they are the most commonly used vegetables in Chinese cooking.
Let’s look, for example, at the dish Tudouchaorousi 土豆炒肉丝，a dish which is exactly what it says it is, strips of potato and fried pork.
Of course, not all dishes make such perfect sense when translated. Well many dishes have simple names some can be a bit ‘flowery’ to say the least, but this is when the joy of Chinglish enters your dining table, for example砂锅杂菌, shaguozajun in pinyin, is often translated as ‘casserole of bacteria’ rather than mixed mushroom casserole’.
What to remember when dining
In Chinese restaurants, there are a few things to remember to avoid being scowled at by every waiter that passes. With everyone is screaming, smoking, and shooting Baijiu, the sober foreigner with careful Chinese who uses ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and a non-intimidating tone will find it hard to order in a Chinese restaurant. No need to shout, but you need to raise you voice a bit and remain determined, otherwise you could end up hungry.
In line with Chinese dining etiquette, the rice usually comes at the end of the meal, so if you want it during the beginning of the meal, remember to ask for it as soon as the first dish arrives. Usually, you’ll find yourself reminding the waiters to bring the rice every time they pass, and still get it towards the end of the meal. Traditionally, Chinese people will eat rice afterwards in order to fill themselves up.
Following your order, the waiter may say ‘Jikou’, meaning, do you have any dietary requirements. This is the time to specify whether or not you can handle chilli (better to be honest, this is not a time to show off), and whether anyone has any allergies.
Dish portions are generally too much for one person, as they are made for sharing in a group. If you want to have one of the dishes with a little bit of rice, try 盖饭gaifan. The dish is smaller and comes with a portion of rice. Perfect as a meal for one person.
Chopstick etiquette is vital in Chinese restaurants. Always lay them across the bowl, never stick them in, never chew on the ends of chopsticks, and do not hold or wave them around in such a way as to point your index or middle finger at a fellow diner.
What to be careful of
Check the type of meat before ordering, as some may include bones, which not everyone enjoys. To avoid bones, dishes with 丝si, strips, are safe. Before ordering, check that the price is per dish and not per person. This is especially important for items like soup and/or tea. This mistake can easily increase your food bill. And finally, avoid solely using English menus in large restaurants as the Chinese and English menus may be known to vary in price, sometimes up to double as much on the English menu. However, the English menus can be a good source of entertainment, as they are full of Chinglish.
Some good food suggestions
A very popular option, although different, and better, than its Western counterpart, is Gongbaojiding 宫爆鸡丁, as it has a good combination of vegetables and meat. For the vegetarians, a good option is Disanxian 地三鲜, a mixture of bell peppers, aubergine and potatoes. Another option, sometimes spicy and largely vegetables, but which does sometimes contain pork, is Ganbiandoujiao 干煸豆角, which is a dish made up of dried runner beans which are then fried with both chilli and Sichuan peppercorns.
If anyone else has tips on how to order in a Chinese restaurant, add them in the comments below. And with that I bid you good luck.