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How to Order in a Restaurant in China

Visiting China may be an amazing experience for several reasons. Its cities are very futuristic and vibrant, while, at the opposite, the rural areas are very quiet and may give the people visiting them a completely different perception of a country which is commonly seen as chaotic and crowded. There is also another reason why having a trip here definitely worths it: food. Despite common stereotypes by people with prejudices, China is a country where you will be able to have a definitely nice dining experience. Every region of China features unique dishes, so that you will end up trying completely different cuisines depending on which area of the country you are visiting. Most dishes you will have in China will taste completely different from the common ones you may be used to in Chinese restaurants in USA or Europe, just like Italian food in restaurants in USA is often completely different from what you would actually eat in Italy.

Some dishes ordered in a restaurant in Shenzhen, China

Some dishes ordered in a restaurant in Shenzhen, China

In China there are many kinds of restaurants to try

In order to enjoy the best of Chinese food it could be good to try different restaurants in every city you visit. In China you will be able to choose among several kinds of places: there are expensive or cheap eateries, places specialized in dim sum, hotpot restaurants, breakfast ones, places suitable for having a dinner with a big number of people and smaller ones. Choice is so wide you will actually experience difficulties in just deciding what do you want to try. Whatever will be your dining experience in China, it is important to understand how to order in Chinese restaurants.

Eating in a "hotel restaurant" in Hunan, China. These restaurants feature several private rooms and each table is located in a single room. These places are great for having private dinners with friends, family and large groups of people.

Eating in a "hotel restaurant" in Hunan, China. These restaurants feature several private rooms and each table is located in a single room. These places are great for having private dinners with friends, family and large groups of people.

How to order in a Chinese restaurant without knowing Mandarin

This is surely one of the aspects that mostly concern people who are planning a trip to China and, maybe, they are doing it without a basic knowledge of Mandarin and also without a Chinese friend ready to help them: how can them order in Chinese restaurants without actually knowing how to read and speak the names of the dishes? This should not be a problem at all, at least if you don’t have to make special requests and you just need to order what you will see in the menu: most eateries feature photos of the dishes everywhere so that you will be able to see in advance what you are going to eat. Plus, by using Alipay, one of the most popular Chinese digital wallets (you will need it in order to pay and this will be better explained in the next paragraphs), you will be able to translate Chinese language in your native one by simply taking a photo to the menu.

Dim sum and breakfast restaurants: how to order

Most dim sum and breakfast restaurants are relatively small eateries specialized in serving dishes like dumplings, baozi, xiaolongbao, noodles and similar ones. In these places it is common to order at the counter before sitting at the assigned table or, in alternative, to sit at the table, order and pay to the waiter. In any case, this kind of restaurants is more similar in concept to what is a fast food in USA: here you enter, order and pay before eating. Food is awesome, especially if you love Chinese dim sum, anyway these places are meant for having a quick meal, not surely for having a birthday dinner. In these places you usually have a wide choice of dishes, including very particular dim sums you won’t find easily everywhere, like the “tangbao”, a sort of “dumpling“ (even if it is not officially a dumpling) filled with broth you have to drink with a straw.

Restaurants featuring reproductions of the dishes

While many common restaurants in China allow you to sit at the table, order and pay at the end, making the experience not much different than the one you may have in a restaurant in Europe or USA, there are also many eateries in which you can experience a very original and funny way to order. In these places you will not be given a common menu with pictures, but instead you will be able to look at fake 3D reproductions of the real dishes served in the restaurant. Each reproduction looks totally like the final dish and has some specific ”bookmarks” to take if you want to order the dish it refers to. You then proceed to the counter and give the cashier all the bookmarks you have taken and pay, then you sit at the table and enjoy your meal.

Reproductions of dishes in a restaurant in Changsha, Hunan, China

Reproductions of dishes in a restaurant in Changsha, Hunan, China

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This ordering method has surely many advantages: you actually know how the dishes you want to order are made, so that you won’t just stick to a photo, which can be surely representative of the dish, but not at the same level of a 3D reproduction showing the dish exactly like it will be on your table. Plus it is surely a fast ordering process, you don’t have even to speak to the cashier about the dish you want to order: you just take the bookmarks related to the dish you want to order, pay and sit.

How to pay in restaurants in China

In China it may be difficult to pay with international debit, credit or prepaid cards like MasterCard, VISA or American Express, as Chinese payment systems mostly support the local UnionPay circuit or mobile payments. Cash can be used too, even if few people use it. Anyway, unless you stick to very central and touristic areas of big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, you should not rely on your debit or credit card. You can choose to have some cash with you, otherwise you can enjoy a fully Chinese experience and download one of the mobile electronic wallet apps used in China. In China you can pay with WeChat (the same app featuring the famous messaging system, here known as one of the alternatives to WhatsApp) or Alipay (from Alibaba). Alipay is actually the most suitable app for a tourist, as it supports a specific feature for foreigners who want to travel to China. In order to top up your balance on Alipay or WeChat you have to bind a Chinese banking account to your wallet, otherwise you need to have a Chinese sending you money while giving cash in exchange. With Alipay’s ‘TourPass’ feature you can instead top up a temporary electronic balance with your main banking account, then the amount you have not spent will be returned back after some weeks. The only thing you have to do is to download Alipay app from Google Play Store or Apple AppStore, sign up for an account with your mobile phone number and then search for ‘TourPass’ in the Alipay search engine.

After having set up a payment method to use in China and after having understood how you can order in Chinese restaurants you are ready to experience one of the richest food traditions you can imagine and, in general, you are ready for an unforgettable trip.

© 2020 Alessio Ganci


Alessio Ganci (author) from Italy on November 11, 2020:

I hope it for you because it is really a wonderful experience. In the meantime, looking to the nearest Chinatown may be a good start, as some authentic Chinese dishes may be found in places where many Chinese want to eat something that remembers them home. Still, eating in China is something completely new and definitely worthy!

Farrah Young from Lagos, Nigeria on November 11, 2020:

This is quite detailed. I hope i visit China someday to have a real taste of Chinese meals.

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