Languages: Read a Chinese Menu! (Part 1, Introduction)


Taking a look at this brunch menu, most Americans would not be able to read any of it. Even most of my ABC friends cannot read much food related Chinese. However, over the last two years since I started cooking, I have been slowly learning Chinese characters to the point of now reading this entire brunch menu at this Chinese restaurant! Knowing to read this menu is a great ability because it has tons of extremely delicious dishes, all not found on the regular menu (which has English).

On this menu, there are A LOT of characters. And they might make you dizzy. Don’t worry, we’ll start from the basics! We will also learn many “radical” characters that are the building blocks of other characters. Also, if you can read this whole menu, you can read just about every Chinese menu. I like this menu also because there are zero Americanized dishes and there are dishes from many regions of China. (They also recently added Pho to the menu, as you can see it is the one of only things written in Latin characters.) Also, all of the words are in traditional Chinese characters. In Mainland China, simplified characters are used more often. In overseas Chinese communities and Taiwan, traditional characters are more common. In this case, I will teach both so you can read in China as well as in your own country. We’ll start from the easiest characters in the menu.

First, let’s learn a radical character. This is the character for “one”:

See? It’s easy. This character is an “abstract” character formed with 1 horizontal line to represent the number one. In China, they use both the western numerals (1 2 3 4 etc.) and the Chinese characters.
To pronounce it, use the first tone and it’s pronounced “ee” as in “sheep”. In pinyin, it is written yī. I recommend watching a YouTube video to learn how to pronounce the four tones of Mandarin Chinese as well as the Pinyin consonants and vowels (sorry, I don’t want to put my voice recording online).

Now, let’s learn two more characters. These two are both found on the menu.
二 (èr) means “two”
三 (sān) means “three”
These characters are just formed with horizontal lines. If you notice, the top line in 二 is shorter than the bottom line. Also, in 三, the middle line is the shortest and the bottom line is the longest. These are important in writing Chinese.

Now, you can read the three easiest Chinese characters! Yay!

Looking at the menu, you can see it is grouped into sections. If you look closely, in several of the sections, the last character in each dish is the same. This is because each section’s foods are have similar ingredients. In the rest of the series, each post will be about one of those sections. We will dissect each character into radicals, and it will be much easier to learn. By the later part of this series, you will realize that many words contain just the same basic radicals!

I hope you will enjoy this series 🙂


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