Ordering Food at your University Canteen


After my first visit to China in a student capacity it soon occurred to me I had a bit of a new problem I had not really experienced in my previous visits as a tourist, how was I to order food by myself?
While I cannot deny that this was somewhat of a problem on my past visits to China as a tourist, I never really strayed too far from English speaking company or touristic zones meaning I could often find English translations or a ‘tourists best friend’ – a restaurant with pictures.
Fast forward to March 2014, I was standing in my university’s canteen, desperately hungry, low on money and confronted with something that is not too dissimilar to the picture above. To make matters more difficult my Chinese was even more limited than it is now, I was hàn zì-汉字 (Chinese character) illiterate and I could not use the tried and trusted ‘pointing technique’ while muttering the words “I want this” (我要这个 - Wǒ yào zhè ge) because the non-English speaking staff aren’t able to actually see the menu board from behind the counter. On that occasion my Chinese to English dictionary came to the rescue, but it made me realise there must be a better option.
Thankfully there was, and it really wasn’t very difficult to pick up on. Essentially, just by learning a few key characters you can determine not just what’s in your food, but also how it will be prepared and that all important question, will it be spicy or not?
Chinese cuisine rarely hides behind strange names, which can be found when ordering food in a country such as Britain. How many non-British people could accurately describe what goes into traditional British food such as toad in the hole, shepherds / cottage pie, spotted dick, a roast dinner and full English breakfast? Chinese food in contrast, tends to literally state what the food is and sometimes how it’s cooked. Simply being able to ask a couple of questions and knowing a handful of characters will reduce the act of blindly ordering food from a total lottery to an educated guess that will allow you vaguely picture what it is you will be getting as well as to pick out some real tasty hidden gems in the less user friendly Chinese eating establishments.
So what characters and phrases would I recommend learning? Below are the ones I consider to be the most useful:
(米) 饭-mǐ) fàn – mǐ and fàn together just means rice. Chinese cuisine names do not often use the full ‘mǐ fàn’ phrase in dish names, instead just opting for the fàn (饭) part. Although fàn on its own just means ‘food’, if you spot this character in a dish name, it means it’s almost certainly a rice-based dish or at least comes with rice.
miàn  - another simple phrase, just means ‘noodles’. Although China has lots of different types of noodles, it does at least give you basic information.
dàn means egg, a common feature in Chinese cuisine.
ròu means ‘meat’. If you are a vegetarian this is a very important one to watch out for. Unlike English, the Chinese words for beef, chicken, pork etc all contain the character ròu as they simply pick the less fortunate animal who will feature in your food and add the character ròu (肉) after it. Be aware that fish poses an exception to this rule, instead just being labeled as yú (鱼).
chǎo means ‘fried or sautéed’ – If you are like me and prefer the drier (but still oily) variety of Chinese food then this is a very important one. It means whatever it is your ordered will be fried in a pan or wok.
huì the opposite of chǎo , as it means to ‘braise’. In practical terms it will mean the food will often come in a soup or stew format.
piàn has lots of meanings, but in a food context it means strips, squares or slices. Couple this character others such as 面 or 土豆 - tǔ dòu (potato) means square noodles or sliced potato’s. Really is that simple. 
zhōu a kind of porridge, usually rice based.
(不)要辣椒 (bù) yào là jiāo (do not) want it spicy. Chinese food can be very spicy. If you struggle with spicy food (just like me) this is a vital one. Sadly its very rare you will see the character for spicy (辣 - là) written in the dish name, so the onus will usually be on you to state if want spicy food or not. Be aware that by stating ‘bù yào là jiāo ’  (no spice please) after you have made your food order wont always make the food completely spice free. It can sometimes be interpreted as ‘less spicy’ particularly in provinces such as Sichuan known for their intensely hot dishes.
You might be a little sceptical at the easiness of deciphering Chinese food, but to prove my point, here are a few examples of my favourite Chinese meals without an English translation. See what you can make of them.
1.蛋炒饭          2.炒面片        3.土豆片         4.蛋炒面
5.肉丝炒饭 ( = shredded)
Brave enough to try out the BLCU University Canteen yourself? Why not check out our courses here.

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Written By Andrew Cole - CSA Intern Spring 2015
Andrew frequently eats out at the BLCU canteen even if he does tend to order the same thing everytime...






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