Trying to order Chinese food for the first time in China can be intimidating, even if a menu has English translations. Waiters, waitresses, and cashiers at authentic Chinese restaurants generally do not have great English skills – especially outside of Shanghai and Beijing – and learning Chinese can be a long and challenging process.
Fortunately you don’t need to be a master of Chinese to have a great meal. Here we’ve compiled eight of the most useful words and phrases for ordering Chinese food anywhere from a sit-down restaurant to a street food cart.
1) fú wù yuán – waiter/waitress
It is uncommon in China for a waiter or waitress to constantly check in on their tables and ask if you need anything. To get someone’s attention, simply call out fú wù yuán for a waiter to come over to your table.
2) cài dān – menu
In a restaurant, small carry-out shop, or café, you may want to ask for a menu if you are unsure of what to order and don’t want to depend on the menu written on the wall. Having a menu in hand will not only give you the ease of pointing to what you want, but also may give you a picture and English translation of the dishes.
3) bīng de / rè de – cold / hot
Especially when ordering drinks like coffee or bubble tea, you will be asked if you want your drink hot or cold (often a cashier will just say “bing de, rè de”). To get your drink cold, reply with “bīng de”; for a hot drink, answer with “rè de”.
4) bú là / yī diǎn là / wēi là / zhōng là / tè là – (spice level)
At restaurants, street food carts, KFC, and everything in between, be prepared to tell someone how spicy you want your food:
Bú là – not spicy
Yī diǎn là – a little spicy
Wēi là – mild
Zhōng là – medium
Tè là – hot
**Note: Levels of spice in Chinese food are NOT equal to those in American dishes (someone accustomed to eating hot wings should start at the mild level). Also, the amount of spice will vary by region within China.
5) cān jīn zhǐ (er) – napkin
Often you will not have napkins placed readily at the table. To ask for napkins, you can call a waiter and say “cān jīn zhǐ (er)”.
6) yī bēi bīng shuǐ – a glass of cold water
Most drinks, especially water, will not be served cold. In order to make sure you get a cold glass of water, use the above phrase (“bīng” literally translates to “ice”, but is the proper way to ask for ‘cold’ water, not necessarily ice water).
7) Dài zǒu / zài zhè lǐ – takeout / dine-in
Useful for any fast food restaurant or other place where you order at a counter and later take a table. A cashier may ask you “dài zǒu hái shi zhè lǐ” – for here or to go – to which you can answer “dài zǒu” for takeout or “zài zhè lǐ” to dine-in.
8) mǎi dān – check
As waiters and waitresses will not be interrupting your meal to make sure you don’t need anything, they will not offer to bring the check until you ask for it. Once you get the attention of a waiter or waitress, simply ask “mǎi dān” and they will bring you your check.
These useful words and phrases will help you to not only enjoy your experience ordering Chinese food, but also improve your Chinese language skills in a fun, delicious way. The key to learning Chinese is practice, and the more you use it the faster it will come. Most Chinese people will be very patient with you while you use these phrases, so remember to never give up!
cover image by karlalim.com