Our local Chinese restaurants: learning the language of menus

Despite the presence of the massive Metro supermarket across the road, many small shops and businesses survive at the west gate of our compound. A couple of weeks ago I noticed a bright orange sign had gone up advertising a Dong Bei restaurant, selling ‘jaozi’ (dumplings). Dong Bei (North East) food is well known for being simple, filling and cheap, presumably to satisfy the appetites of the farmers and steel workers who live in the vast, cold wastes that stretch up to the border with Russia.

I duly persuaded Fintan that he would like to have a lunch of ‘jaozi’ and one Saturday we ventured into the small premises. It was a typical one family business – about eight small tables, plastic-wood flooring, rice steamers plugged into dodgy looking sockets on the floor and a tiny kitchen at the back. A woman in her early 20s took the orders, while her husband and father cooked and her mother looked after the grandchild. Each table was provided with cellophane wrapped sets of a plate, bowl and china spoon. Chopsticks in paper stood in a container next to a jar of chilli sauce and a jug of soy. Customers helped themselves to watery Qingdao or Harbin beer from a fridge.

I often used to go to similar restaurants with fellow students, but it was some time since I’d been to one. I had forgotten that the menu is a list of dishes entirely in Chinese. Chinese people seem to walk into a restaurant knowing exactly what they want to eat and don’t mind that the waitress immediately stands at the table expecting an instant order. For a foreigner with limited Chinese, however, this can be challenging.

My Chinese language suddenly deserted me, but I blurted out ‘jaozi’, hoping this would be enough. The waitress pointed to the wall, where a poster-menu showed that there were at least 15 different ones available. ‘What kind of jaozi?’ she smiled. I just about remembered how to say ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ and although the young woman said a lot more, she seemed satisfied. When I looked more calmly at the list I could see that she must have made a number of decisions on my behalf – with chives, with spring onions, with chilli, with greens – and so on.

Our steamed dumplings arrived and we quite enjoyed them. The pictures of food on the other wall looked a lot more appetising, but how to match them to the lists of dishes on the laminated menus that served as placemats? I took a photo on my phone, determined that we would return once I’d worked out what was what.

The following week I enlisted Yona’s help and sent her the photograph. Printed out in large format, the handwritten characters provided the basis for my next three lessons. First we started with methods of cooking, next we tackled the main ingredients and finally got to the names of complete dishes. The Chinese have an unimaginable number of words for ‘fry’ as this is their main way of cooking – quick fry, stir fry, longer fry, deep fry, fry and then braise in soy sauce, not to mention dry fry in a pot brought to the table. Then there is steam, stew, grill and roast, all with further variants.

Ingredients were sometimes difficult to translate, especially when I was more familiar with the Japanese names, such as shitake or enoki (fragrant mushroom and tea tree mushroom respectively in Chinese). Yona sent me about 50 new words and we identified things I would probably not like to eat – duck head, fish head, bull frog – among them. We looked at photos of different fishes on the internet – belt fish, croker, pomfret – usually agreeing that I would find most of them too bony.

I went back to Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Every Grain of Rice’, because she names every dish in English, Chinese and pinyin, which helped with cross-checking. She also stimulates my memory through her knowledge and insight; for example she says that the Chinese called newly imported tomatoes ‘barbarian aubergines’ (fan qie), ensuring that I won’t forget the character for aubergine in a hurry. It turns out that sweet potatoes are also barbarian potatoes.

Gradually my vocabulary and confidence grew and we got to the stage where I could read through the menu in halting Chinese (tones nearly correct) and write out a dialogue about going to a restaurant. Finally, after some negotiation with Fintan, I highlighted the dishes we would choose and practised how to say them. We were ready to return.

Yesterday we walked down to the west gate, full of expectation. Alas, the shutters were down and the restaurant was closed! This weekend is a holiday weekend, with Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping taking place on Monday. Presumably the family had gone back to their Dong Bei home to honour their ancestors.

Determined not to be defeated, we walked across to the establishments on the other side of the gate. At the end is a small restaurant run by a Hui family, serving halal food. The Hui are an Islamic ethnic group living across China. Although there was no pork, in most other ways the restaurant was almost exactly the same. Young woman serving, husband cooking, menu listed on the wall, small tables, packs of china, drinks in the fridge. It served noodles rather than rice, but I found my preparation had not been wasted, as I could now read most of the characters, and many standard Chinese dishes were available here too.

We ordered two bowls of noodles and enjoyed our simple Saturday lunch. We had discovered a new ‘local’ but I hope we will still soon go back to the Dong Bei restaurant.

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