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Chinese Menu Translations

  • j

Let me throw this open to our learned Chinese-food mavens, and anyone else who cares to pitch in:

Chinese restos are overwhelmingly pretty damn good in Toronto, and there are four or five authorities on the subject who post on this board and who've directed us to some solid winners. The trouble is, most of the good ones are uptown, often in areas heavily populated by Asians (that's where you find the good Chinese spots, naturally), and the English translations of the menus handed to us Caucasians often aren't up to much.

For example, last night we went to Sun Star, on Finch Ave. east of Bayview - recommended - I think - by the wonderful Charles Yu, who I suspect never ever eats at home. A lively, deservedly popular joint packed almost exclusively by Asians. Charles had mentioned several dishes he liked, so I thought I'd try at least one of them. But no luck finding any of them on the English menu, or anything that looked like it might even be close. And our servers didn't seem to have enough English for me to question them about what I wanted. Also, the English translations of many dishes, I suspect, aren't all that close to what actually arrives on the plates. I ordered what was described as "spicy salted spare ribs", and got deep-fried pork chops - which were tasty, let me emphasize, but not quite what I had in mind. All the other dishes our table wound up with, like the bitter melon with olives and minced pork (excellent) were reasonably close to the menu translation, but all too often a dish - not just in Sun Star - is, how to put it? "undertranslated". In short, not all that close to what you're gonna get.

I suppose it can be fun, not knowing what's gonna turn up on your table. A little like roulette. But Charles, where was the braised eggplant with Enobi mushrooms in oyster sauce? Or the wok-fried mixed mushrooms and scallions with fillet of veal? Or the sand and salt chicken? You got to ingest all that good stuff on your visit but I didn't on mine. All those dishes were missing in action at Sun Star, at least on the English menu, though it's certainly not the only uptown joint with undertranslated menus.

So what's the solution, if any? Do we insist that Charles and his confreres let us know whether a dish they liked can be found on the English menu? Or do we demand that they type out the Chinese characters on their postings (as someone has done occasionally), the better to allow us to bring a copy to the resto of our choice and point to it, saying "I want that!"? Or should we just import better menu translators, so Chinese dishes are less of a crapshoot to us Caucasians?

Or do we just take our chances, as I've been doing in Chinese restos most of my life - except for a few years when a Chinese friend guided me expertly through his restaurant selections. Ah, those were the days. I just ate when was put in front of me, and it was invariably delicious. Maybe I should make friends with Charles Yu.

I put this problem to the assembled, and eagerly await your answers.

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  1. These aren't long-term solutions for you, but if caught in a pinch you can look around at what people are eating and point at some, its not really considered rude. As well, you could just ask someone at an adjacent table for some help.

    2 Replies
    1. re: szw

      The truth is that there is no solution.
      Even at Elegantview where they know us, sometimes they give us a huge verbal list of translations and suggestions, and some days just a few depending on their mood.
      I have asked them for years to translate the Chinese menu into English, to no avail.
      They even told us very diplomatically that that would deprive them of the pleasure of translating for us.
      So, it is hopeless.
      Sometimes we just tell them what we are in the mood to eat, and usually they will make it for us.
      None of this works if there is no one on staff who speaks English, but this is rare.
      We look at what is coming by, and just recently at Maple Yip, we saw a fish that looked good, and asked our neighbours what they were eating.
      It was a fresh steamed green bass.
      We ended up having a great conversation, with the English speakers translating for their relatives.
      They even suggested their favourite dishes, and insisted on translating every special..
      They were celebrating the (the relatives told me famous) Photographer's recently published book on Szechuan, with beautiful photographs taken shortly after the disaster.
      We were given the book to view, as well.
      So, if you want real Chinese food, you need to go with the flow!

      1. re: szw

        Waiters or people at the next table may not know that enoki mushrooms are called "golden needle mushrooms" or "golden mushrooms" 金針菇 / 金菇 , for example, so if you want a specific dish that you read about, the best bet is to have the Chinese characters printed out. That means those who recommend the dishes should include the characters, but it requires Chinese input software that not everyone has.

        The other problem is that some restos still think that non-Chinese would not be able to stomach anything other than the "sweet and sour pork" category so may be unwilling to serve you what wanted, in case you don't like it. The same reason why the English menu is usually just a subset of the Chinese one.

      2. Oh! What a great post juno! I have always wondered about this. I can understand and speak passable Mandarin, but only know how to read numbers! :) Even being able to speak some, I still wouldn't know exactly what to ask/say!! I tempted to sketch out (on paper, on napkin) the dish I have in mind.

        1. Though I can sometimes read certain characters, I'm completely clueless at any and every form and dialect of Chinese. Fortunately, I have a lot of Chinese friends that I will dine out with when I decide to do Chinese.

          While mostly for the company (as we are perfectly comfortable dining anywhere), this is the one chance I get to eat Chinese without worrying about dying (as I have a severe peanut/nut allergy). If I didn't have a friend that was able to speak to the server, I don't think I'd be able to risk my life, no matter how delicious the restaurant.

          2 Replies
          1. re: tjr

            Wow, how often do you eat chinese? Even with a translator, I would never even risk it, Chinese food is not very forgiving with your needs. A lot of peanuts and nuts in the oils, and depending on which cook you get or staff they may not be familiar at all with allergies or think its a big deal. BTW, "Yes" doesn't mean what you think it means when they say it sometimes!

            1. re: szw

              I haven't died yet, and I've been to HK/China several times in addition to Toronto eateries, where I usually eat Chinese maybe three times a month. I wouldn't eat alone, and always have someone there to ask (in Chinese) about my dietary restriction concerns.

              I grew up in Japan where the majority of people don't believe in allergies, so I'm used to the concept. I also know which restaurants I can/can't eat at, and we usually end up doing kitchen tours/speaking with the cooks before I ever sit down for a meal.

              I'm not really into the whole dying thing, but fear of allergies/death would probably mean that I could never travel or eat in restaurants, so it's something I've come to terms with. While I am certainly a much better cook for it, it has also helped me come to terms with mortality.

              Yes doesn't mean yes when you're white and speaking English, but when a Chinese person is making sure and taking a tour of the kitchen with you, it's a different story.

          2. I was having similar thoughts about Chinese menus just yesterday when I went to grab a quick dinner in Chinatown. Since I look Chinese, but didn't greet them verbally, they gave me all their menus. Usually I order from the English menu or from the specials menu to get the most for my money when seeking week night sustenance. But yesterday I had absolutely no interest in either and wanted to test this idea that the Chinese menu is typically better. So I decided to put my rudimentary knowledge of Chinese characters to work. I can recognize the characters for fish, beef, shrimp, chicken, stir-fry and other basics. I decided that I wanted fish so I looked for that character, but didn't know what all the other characters meant. When the waiter came I just pointed and ended up with stir-fried snow peas, shitake and sliced fish, which wasn't bad. They also served me a complimentary pork broth soup with napa cabbage and carrots to start, which I don't usually get. I think I'll try and strategically expand my vocabulary. I've also thought about bringing a dictionary with me.

            1. Juno, I share your pain as well. Although I'm Chinese, I came to Canada at a very young age and thus cannot read more than 10 Chinese characters. Luckily, I married a Beijing girl that loves food and does all the ordering for me. I end up posting what I can on Chowhound to share with others, but unfortunately I can't do the Chinese character input option (and wife is too busy with 2 kids on our hands). Thanks to Skyline and Bokchoi and others who take the time to type in Chinese for us.

              Learning to read a few simple Chinese characters in hopes of ordering those star dishes can be hit 'n miss too, since a lot of those specialty dishes might be hand written script that's hanging off a piece of brightly colored paper on one of the 4 walls (my wife usually walks around the resto reading all the dishes whenever you venture into a new joint). There are also times when a dish is simply not on the any menu, and yet when you ask for something they might be able to cook it for you.

              Thus, I think your one and only true solution is your final listed option.. make friends w/ Charles Yu. :) (or at least have a Chowmeet up with him).

              6 Replies
              1. re: Royaljelly

                Yes, Royaljelly, skylineR33, Juno....et al. Why don't we 'Chinese food lovers' have a chowmeet?! Feel free to e-mail me for suggestions! I helped to arrange for a Chinese food Chowmeet in Hong Kong earlier on this year. It was most interesting and fun.

                1. re: Royaljelly

                  Hello Royaljelly. I just tried contacting you on your e-mail but was unsuccessful. Can you e-mail me with your up-dated e-mail address?

                  1. re: Charles Yu

                    any word on when and where the dinner might take place?

                  2. re: Royaljelly

                    Yellow banana is what I get called, or CBC. I hate going to a Chinese restaurant unless I'm with friends or relatives who can read Chinese. My husband and I suffer when we go, knowing the good dishes are written in Chinese and/or posted on the walls. It's a real dilemma. My husband can speak Cantonese, but can't read, I can't read and only speak "very" limited words or phrases. If we do find a place we like, I tend to learn and remember the dishes. My very limited Cantonese can get me into trouble at times. I recall a long time ago, I asked for a fork and got extra tea. Fork, tea and an Indian person sound a bit similar, but when spoken in a certain tone, can mean any of the above 3. I get by with remembering my favorite foods at dim sum, so I'm not that useless ...LOL

                    1. re: red dragon

                      I guess people who has limited knowledge in speaking English can also get into trouble too when requesting a fork but mis-pronouns the word "Fork" with another F word.

                      1. re: skylineR33

                        LOL, I've heard that myself.

                        Once, a relative went to TIm Horton's and asked for an apple frigger!!