How to ask for "traditional" food at a Chinese place

At some of the Chinese places around me, the Chinese-American food is pretty mediocre, but they’ll also provide a “traditional” menu that’s often not very well translated, and that’s always your best bet. I’ve discovered amazing food at places that keep a separate menu.

The thing is, not every place hands those out, and I’m not sure how to tread those waters. Has anyone had luck asking for off-menu (but traditional and very popular) dishes? For example, there’s a szechwan place near me whose ‘szechuan’ foods are pretty bland, but I’ve had enough terrific food from them that I suspect they’re dumbing it down. How do I ask for dry-fried szechuan chicken? Is there a common Mandarin name for it I should try?

I’ve asked if they have a “special” menu. I’m not Chinese and they sometimes get pretty excited when I ask :slight_smile:

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My best ally has been an app on my iPhone called Pleco. An in app $15 purchase of the optical character recognition tool enables you to scan Chinese characters into the phone and translates them on the fly. Pleco has as much information about specific Chinese dishes as you would expect from a dictionary, so it’s better for words than dishes.

if you’re interested I would be happy to send you a copy of a pleco dictionary I created from dozens of menus and info I’ve collected from book.

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Sometimes, some dishes aren’t translated in the menu or on the wall, ask the restaurant what those dishes are…

Last time, husband spotted that on a menu, and asked what was that plate, the waiter said, if you were French you wouldn’t like it. Hubby insisted. The waiter: It’s somewhere near the heart, I don’t know the word in French. He suspected it was pig lung and didn’t order it.

Good decision. A friend of mine who’s a VERY adventuresome eater said lung was disgusting. I’ll take his word for it.

A Bay Area restaurant (China Village) lists Sichuan dry cooked chicken as 幹扁雞 (gan bian ji). 干扁鸡 is the same dish written in simplified characters. Show this post to a server if they don’t understand you and/or you can’t find it on a menu.

To follow up on my earlier post, you can use Pleco to scan in the Chinese name of a dish. Paste the results into a google image search, or read Pleco’s translation.

Some tips for getting and understanding the Chinese menu:

  1. Hang out near the host station, and grab both the Chinese American and the Chinese menu. The Chinese menu might have English translations.

  2. In a Sichuan place, tell them you want lots of Sichuan Peppercorns (花椒 Hua Jiao) , numbing spice Ma La (麻辣) , or spicy peppers (椒辣 la jiao). You can also ask them to point you to dishes with these characteristics. I can’t pronounce anything properly but servers usually understand me by context, and if they don’t, I’ll show them the characters on my phone (keep a copy of this thread loaded up).

  3. For regional specialties other than Sichuan, try asking where the chef is from
    and if they cook any special dishes from that area. I’ve had variable results with this strategy, especially when the chef’s origin has no relation to the food they serve :slight_smile: If you have a tip on where chef is from, tell the server, “I heard the chef is from X. Which dishes from that region would you recommend?”

  4. If there is hand-written menu on the wall, ask the server if they can translate the specials for you. This tactic is limited by their ability to speak English and how busy they are, so may be not be successful. The signboard specials often contain seasonal vegetables that wouldn’t be listed on a print menu.

  5. If someone at another table has something that looks good and the server can’t communicate what it is, I have them type the Chinese into my phone. I’ve enabled Chinese handwriting on my phone (it takes a minute on an iPhone), and Pleco translates without need for an internet connection.

  6. Get a takeout menu and study it at home with Pleco.

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If you are familiar with the cuisine and spicing level already, why don’t you tell them you have worked in that Chinese city for a few weeks, that you are used to the food there and the spicing level, and ask them if they have a separate menu for Chinese people.

If they do, and if you don’t want to or don’t have a way to figure out the characters, ask them what on that menu they would order for their parents if their parents eat there.

And if they ask you more about your trip there, you just play dumb and say they holed you up in the office/ hotel but brought in lots of great local food :smile:

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I used to go to a place that would make just about anything you wanted…but you have to know what you want. I had a Chinese friend who knew the food and the language and we always had great food. They didn’t have a special menu but they’d make things if you knew what to ask for as long as they had the ingredients.

Thanks folks! I’ll check out Pleco and will try either asking for or showing them the characters for the kind of foods I want. They do a few dishes with sichuan peppercorns so I know they’ve got the goods. I don’t think pretending to have visited China would be a good strategy; I think maintaining that story would be way more trouble than it’s worth!

LOL, pretending works surprisingly well at places that have a primarily Chinese clientele and I’ve never been asked to cough up details about my fabled adventures in Chengdu. I’m not sure I’ve ever volunteered such a fib, but if the server asks me, in response to my detailed order, "have you been to X? " I always say yes.

That said, the strategy might come back to haunt you if it is a place that you are regular at and the servers speak good English :slight_smile:

Something I learned to do at Chowdowns is to order a cold spicy appetizer as a litmus test, and then tell the server to amp up or tone down the spicing when you order the rest of the meal. Plus, you can ask for extra Sichun Peppercorn powder to toss on the top of a cold dish that is under spiced

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If it’s primarily the spiciness level that you want to adjust, then telling them that you’ve had authentic Sichuan spiciness (leave out how or when) and see if that can convince them.

A bigger Chinese restaurants that cater to primarily Chinese clientele can probably recreate most dishes that you ask of them – as others noted, you just have to know what to ask. Bringing along a Chinese-speaking friend is the easiest suggestion, but I think if you can photograph and menus beforehand and ask, that would be helpful. Or get the Chinese names of your favorite dishes down and put that in your phone somewhere.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold