How to Read a Chinese Menu, 如何读懂中国的菜单

How to Read a Chinese Menu, 如何读懂中国的菜单

 This post is part of a series about how to read a Chinese menu. If you would like to check out the other two posts, you can click to go to Part 2 and Part 3.


One of the most useful (and tasty!) things you can use your Chinese skills for is to order food. If you have a good fundamental understanding of the language up to this point, you should try and put these skills to practical use and learn some of the most common and helpful Chinese characters found on a menu.

In the next few blog posts, we’ll explore everything that can be found on a menu, from meat, to vegatables, to spices, to drinks, to way of cooking, and methods of preparation, not to mention the names of many of the most common dishes you’ll want to be able to order.

In this first post, we’ll spend our time just with the types of meats you might see available to you.

Before we continue though, I want to let you know that Chinese menus use notoriously colourful language to describe what you may be ordering, oftentimes not employing very straightforward terms to list the dish that may clearly be under the pork category, and perhaps not even including the word for pork in the actual name of the dish itself!

But fear not! You can easily know what you are about to eat just by having a handful of simple Chinese characters at your disposal. We’ll learn them here.

Let’s start off with a few simple names for some of the most common types of animals found on a menu.

Common Meats

牛 (niú) – cow
蟹 (xiè) – crab
鸡 (jī) – chicken
羊 (yáng) – sheep
猪 (zhū) – pig
鸭 (yā) – duck
鱼 (yú) – fish
虾 (xiā) – prawn

If you take a look at both chicken and duck above, you will see that both employ a 鸟 (niǎo) radical on their right-hand sides. Appropriately, this character means bird and is found in many of the words for different types of birds, for example, 鹅 (swan), 鸽 (pigeon), 鹧 (quail), and 鹰 (hawk). Notice that the 鸟 radical is located on the right-hand side of the first three characters, but on the bottom of the fourth character.

From this, you can remember that whenever you see the 鸟 radical as part of a larger character on a menu, it is most likely referring to some type of bird dish.

Both shrimp, 虾 (xiā), and crab, 蟹 (xiè), from above also share a similarity in that they both employ the 虫 (chóng) radical. 虫 itself means insect, but is often also used in characters that describe small sea creatures like the two above, as well as shellfish like oysters (蚝 háo) or mussels (蚌 bàng). You may have also seen the other half of 虾 (xiā) before, or 下 (xià), meaning down. Notice the resulting similarity in pronunciation between the two characters; only the tone differs.

解 is the other half of our character for crab above and is pronounced jiě. This is not exactly like xiè, but similar in that the final is the same (i.e., the –ie portion).

As with our bird example above, if you see a character on a menu employing the use of a 虫 radical in its parts, it is most likely referring to a type of shellfish or other seafood. Be careful though. In some of the more authentic restaurants in China, these could just as easily refer to actual dishes made with insects, such as scorpions (蝎 xiē), dragonflies (蜓 tíng), or locusts (蝗 huáng). Not bad if you’re adventurous though!

By this point, you may be wondering what the appropriate terms are for the more common types of meat found in a restaurant. You might already know how to say cow orpig, but you’d never see these on a menu; instead, you’d see beef or pork.

Very simply, in order to change some of the above types of animals into terms used on a menu, all you usually need to do is add one more character to create a new, two-character word. The character to add is 肉 (ròu) and means meat (perhaps you can remember this character by thinking of a slab of meat with muscle fibers running through the middle).

For example, if you take the character for cow, 牛 (niú), and add 肉 to the end, you create the new word for beef, or 牛肉 (niú ròu).

Similarly, pork combines the two characters for pig and meat to form 猪肉 (zhū ròu),chicken is formed with 鸡 (jī) and 肉 (ròu) to make 鸡肉 (jī ròu), and mutton is comprised of sheep, 羊 (yáng), and 肉 (ròu), to make 羊肉 (yáng ròu).

Note that not all types of meat employ this 肉 character though. It’s usually only used for mammals like cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, dogs (狗肉gǒu ròu), horses (马肉 mǎ ròu), deer (鹿肉 lù ròu), or rabbits (肉 tù ròu), and is generally not used for things like seafood.

One more important thing to be aware of is that if you see the character for meat (肉) by itself (in that it does not have a character before it indicating a specific type of animal), then 肉 usually takes on the general meaning of pork. This is important because pork is the most commonly eaten type of meat in China, and useful to remember if you do not eat it (or if you do not eat meat at all).

An example of this would be the dish 鱼香肉丝 (yú xiāng ròu sī), which is a type of shredded pork with chili and garlic sauce. Breaking down the whole name, we have the following, somewhat cryptic, characters:

鱼 (yú) – fish
香 (xiāng) – fragrant
肉 (ròu) – meat
丝 (sī) – shredded

As you can see, there is not actually any mention of a pig in the name of this dish. A fish is the only animal present, though this indicates the fish sauce that is used in the dish. As stated above though, pork is implied here by the inclusion of 肉 (ròu).

Another famous dish would be 红烧肉 (hóng shāo ròu). This is also a pork dish, though again, only the 肉 character appears. This “red-cooked-pork” is made up of the following characters:

红 (hóng) – red
烧 (shāo) – to cook; to stew
肉 (ròu) – meat

Notice the fire radical on the second character – 火. It’s good to remember that it often appears in characters related to cooking or heat, such as 炒 (chǎo), or to stir-fry.

One last example is 咕噜肉 (gū lū ròu), or sweet and sour pork, a dish you’re surely familiar with. As you can see in the Chinese version, there is still no actual mention of pork, but is implied by the presence of the 肉 character (just for reference, 咕噜 [gū lū] is a term for sweet and sour).

It should additionally be noted that on most Chinese menus, meat dishes are divided into separate categories, meaning that all dishes containing pork will be listed separately from those containing beef, which will be separate from those made of seafood or chicken.

An important character to know then is 类 (lèi), meaning kind or type, and is usually found as a part of the header indicating what type of meat dishes will be immediately listed.

For example, 牛肉类 (niú ròu lèi) would be translated into English simply as beef, but it is good to realize that this extra character is also hidden in there. Similarly, chickenwould be 鸡肉类 (jī ròu lèi) and pork would be 猪肉类 (zhū ròu lèi).

See the pictures below for some examples. The characters on this menu are in traditional characters, but it should still give you an idea of how a Chinese menu can be laid out even if you are not able to read everything.

Another word to add now to your vocabulary is the word for seafood, or 海鲜 (hǎi xiān). Using the above structure, seafood as a menu heading would be written 海鲜类 (hǎi xiān lèi). 海 (hǎi) means sea and 鲜 (xiān) indicates different types of aquatic foods.

Notice the water radical (氵) on 海 (hǎi) and the fish radical (鱼) on 鲜 (xiān), both helping to indicate that these characters have something to do with the ocean and aquatic animals respectively.

Intestines, Brains, and Tongues

You are probably used to eating many different types of meat such as those listed above, but in China, a whole new selection may be available to you, from dog to goose gizzards to beef tongue, depending on which restaurants you choose to dine at. We will discuss some of these possible delicacies here.

鸭肝 (yā gān) – duck liver
鸭膀 (yā bǎng) – duck wings
牛舌 (niú shé) – beef tongue
肺 (fèi) – lung
牛腱 (niú jiàn) – beef intestine
腰 (yāo) – kidney
牛筋 (niú jīn) – beef tendon
猪脑 (zhū nǎo) – pork brain
猪肘 (zhū zhǒu) – pork knuckle
猪耳 (zhū ěr) – pig ear
鸭掌 (yā zhǎng) – duck feet
肠 (cháng) – intestine
八爪鱼 (bā zhuǎ yú) – octopus
牛肚 (niú dù) – tripe

Again, some of the most useful parts of these characters to look at are their radicals. As a review from the previous section, you should be able to spot the various bird dishes by the characters consisting of a 鸟 (niǎo) radical – 鸭肝 (yā gān), 鸭掌 (yā zhǎng), and 鸭膀 (yā bǎng), or duck liverduck feet, and duck wings, respectively.

Next, think back to the extended discussion we just had on the character 肉 (ròu), ormeat. Although this is a character often used on its own, it can also be slightly varied and used to become a radical itself. Its shortened form is 月, and indicates that the new character has something to do with flesh, organs, or other types of body parts.

You can see that in both of the words 鸭肝 (yā gān) and 鸭膀 (yā bǎng), both gān andbǎng contain the radical 月 (肉) on their left-hand sides, and these characters, not surprisingly, respectively mean liver and wing, both animal body parts. As you might also guess, the characters making up the right side of both larger characters also have similar pronunciations: 干 (gān) and 旁 (páng).

Similarly, several other of the characters from the foods above also contain this meatradical, for example, 肺 (fèi), lung; 腰 (yāo), kidney; 肠 (cháng), intestine; 牛肚 (niú dù), tripe; and 猪脑 (zhū nǎo), pig brain.

Last in this section, there is one more radical that you should be aware of, and this radical is 犬 (quǎn). This character by itself means dog, but is not really used alone anymore.

However, it is used extensively as a radical, its form also becoming altered to now look like 犭. This radical usually indicates characters that represent animals, and often the kinds with fur.

You will notice that the more commonly used word today for dog itself also uses this radical – 狗 (gǒu). Several of the other animals that we have looked at such as pig, 猪 (zhū), employ this radical, as do various others such as lion, 狮 (shī); monkey, 猴 (hóu);wolf, 狼 (láng); and orangutan, 猩 (xīng).


by Aaron Posehn,



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