learning menu Chinese (moved from General Chowhounding Topics)
After years of wishing I could read the posted specials in Chinese restaurants around the world, I'd like to try learning enough Chinese characters to at least partially understand Chinese menu items.
A very old post (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/260559) mentions The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters, which is back in print and available in paperback on Amazon. Are there other tools -- like iPhone apps or specific websites -- that are additional good starting points? I would love to build some knowledge over time as well as have an accessible app that I could use to look up dishes at a restaurant.
Chohounding? These moderators not only can't read, they can't spell.
The tools that have been most helpful to me in learning to read restaurant menus are eStroke and Pleco. eStroke is basically a stroke order tool, and a very good one, with a basic dictionary and stroke order practice tools built-in. $7-10 I think.
Pleco is a full-featured dictionary which includes a stroke order module that can deconstruct characters (so you can see the radicals, plural, and find other characters that contain them) as well as a flashcard system which included stroke order tests, a text and web document reader, a full-screen HWR module that's much more forgiving than Apple's, (Mandarin) audio samples in male and female voices, and most recently a live OCR module that makes use of the camera on iPhone 3GS and 4 to both translate and capture text.
The basic dictionary is free, but the add-ons will run you about $65 in total; they're all worth having. And of course you have to include the cost of an iPhone and/or iPad (preferably both) especially if you want to run the live OCR module, which doesn't work very well with an iPod touch camera. Mike Love, the developer, is quite responsive to user requests, and is already looking into licensing McCawley's book as well as the more recent book by Alan Hoenig, both of which would be much more useful if they were searchable.
After working with these tools sporadically since March or so (and eating a lot of Chinese food) I can find my way around most of the menus I encounter in the US, in many cases without ever pulling out the phone. (As an example, I was able to translate the Chinese menu from Sichuan Garden 2 (downloading the text) in a couple of hours, and that's despite the somewhat clunky editing interface in Pleco's document reader.) I don't remember what it was like to learn to read English, but learning to read Chinese has been not particularly difficult and very cool. I hope, over the next few months, to use the capture tools to assemble a practical (meaning based on local menus) dictionary for Pleco.
As I mentioned in the other thread, there are at least a couple of dim sum apps for iPhones, namely Yum Yum and Yum Cha. Of the two, Yum Cha is a bit more detailed, and allows you to save favorites, but they both include Chinese writing and pronunciation, as well as sound clips so you can press the button and let the waiter hear what you want, (Cantonese in Yum Cha, not specified in Yum Yum.)
You can also find a few more general food apps, including Handy Chinese Food Menu, which while somewhat buggy and not entirely accurate is still pretty useful.
~ Kiran <firstname.lastname@example.org>