Not speaking the language and still eating well
I just got to Beijing a few days ago and will be traveling around China for a month or so. I'd love any suggestions for eating well in China without speaking the language.
It seems that the options are:
Go to touristy places with English menus
Learn the names of a few dishes and order those every time
Neither of these options particularly appeals to me. Does anyone have any other strategies for getting great meals?
For a nine day portion of our trip, we ate exclusively at places with no English spoken or written. But that was on purpose. We actually had to go out of our way to do that, even in a rural area. Many places you go, not just tourist traps, you will see English.
Night markets are a good place to just point directly at the food you want. The food is often cheap and delicious. If you go to a market where there are many different types of food, then look for places that are popular with the locals. Or go to a stand that isn't trying so hard to hook you in.
Some kinds of places only do one type of food. Like a place that just does hotpot or noodle soups, or a place that just does dumplings. So ordering can be very easy, especially if you are not too picky about exactly what you'll be eating.
Our language guide book was pretty much useless. And even when people told us how to say something, it just seemed to lead to confusion. Sometimes pictures on the wall or even obvious hand gestures were also misleading.
Without a rec, you'll just have to strike out on your own. I would suggest that, if you have a set itinerary, then look up beforehand on the internet about some local places and special items you should try. I found Chinatravel.com to be an informative website that, in most provinces, had a very interesting run down of food specialties by town, and in some case cited restaurants where you could find that specialty. if you clicked on Destinations, then selected the province on the map, then selected the city, than selected food, you will find a list of specialties, some of which will be obscure. You could then take this list to wherever you'll be staying and ask where you could find that dish.
The best thing is not to be too picky about the ingredients. Where are you going?
Beijing is a major city and as such a lot of local places will surprise you by having Engish menus. One of my favorite hole in the wall spots has an English menu because, though its very local, its in a heavily touristy area, so they get a few foreigners in there a week. A place like 3 Guizhou Men or Noodle Loft that get talked about on here sometimes is what I'd consider an "expat" spot (a little different from tourist places) where you'll get unique Chinese food from what you're used to in a decent setting. Neither are the best Guizhou or noodle spot in the city, but they are a great introduction and are more "comfortable" to foreigners. The situation will be similar in Shanghai, but when you leave these 2 cities, it can get harder.
A lot of places will have picture menus, if you have the characters for a few things (ie meat, pork, chicken, fish), it will give you an idea of what is in the pictured dish and if you'd want to order it or not. I would try to get some recommendations or have an idea of a few things to try in each city. Every province is known for a certain type of cooking and often cities have special dishes as well. If you are staying in better hotels, you can ask for recommendations from the concierge or if you have/make a Chinese friend, you can have them help you by checking out the website dianping.com for the cities you are going to.
Not speaking the language limits your options but within those limited options is plenty of deliciousness, definitely enough to keep a traveller well fed for a month or more even if you stay in one city. The second strategy you mention, about learning the names of dishes, can work if your dishes are specific to that city. But if you learn the dish names in Shanghai, for example, and then try to find food by the same name out west here it probably won't work.
I run into English menus quite a bit in good local (chengdu, sichuan) places too, in neighbourhoods with more foreign residents or students (not tourists) such as around universities. I can speak Chinese (kinda) but in a new restaurant I often still do a walk through the dining room to see what people are enjoying and ask for what looks good.
have been to China 3 times and always ate well. rarely see english or even a menu. i simply point at what i want, or walk up to other patrons and point at some delicious looking things they're eating. in smaller places i show them the ingredient words such as 'tofu', 'fish', 'meat' and so on. sometimes words for methods of cooking. most times they just know exactly what to do with these ingredients. clever! however, there's a little drawback with the pointing system. once in a while i get things i don't order. so you want to find out what something is [again pointing at a word or the actual ingredient/food] and that's what you're going to get. it's hilarious, and i gladly eat it so no problem there. a lot of fun with my pocket LP mandarin phase book when it comes to eating.
usually they make a complete dish using one ingrident. the food keeps arriving at the table. for example, i point at 3 different kinds of mushrooms, tofu, and tomatoes. they bring me 5 dishes lol. [pic: http://bonvivantnl.fotopic.net/p56242... ]
"there's a little drawback with the pointing system. once in a while i get things i don't order."
Pata_Negra is absolutely right about this. I have gotten 'wrong' dishes like this as well. Sometimes I get in return big gestures waving me off, as if they ran out of the ingredients, or I wouldn't like it, or I don't know what. Still, this is the best strategy absent any in-depth knowledge or language skills. Chances are the 'wrong' dish will be just as good as the one you thought you were ordering.
A little bit of serendipity is not bad either.
Thanks for all of the suggestions! I've found a good strategy too--street food! That way I just have to point. :)
Also, I got this iphone app: http://chinabites.com/iphone/
I haven't actually used it yet, but it looks really useful for when you're stuck. I've been surprised how many places have picture or English menus, but I've also been surprised at how many don't. It's very unpredictable. I'm staying in a non-touristy part of Beijing, though, so it's sort of a crapshoot I guess.
It's a good idea to carry a little notebook around with you. When you do find a dish you like the waiter can write it down for you so you can order it again.
The majority of Chinese people under the age of 25 can speak English. Strike up a conversation with them and ask them to take you to their favorite places. Just be aware that whoever does the inviting pays for the meal.
while the notebook idea might be good, even in Beijing and Shanghai far from the "majority" of people under 25 can speak English, and outside of those cities, its even harder to do so. Yes, they'll be able to say "hello, how are you? I'm fine, thank you, and you?" but not that much else unless they attended one of the top universities or studied foreign language.