One of the most important factors in successfully learning a new skill is practice. Lots of practice. Sadly, I have been unable to find even a single textbook full of example Chinese menus graded in order of difficulty with answers at the back. Clearly there is a gap in the market.
On the bright side, if you want to learn to read Chinese menus, there are quite possibly some specific menus you have in mind — perhaps, like me, you've noticed that your local Chinese restaurant has a separate Chinese-only menu with no translations, or a chalkboard of specials written in Chinese. The trick is to get a copy of this menu to study at your leisure! If you feel brave, you could ask if they have a copy you could take away with you, and build up a collection that way.
However, I was not brave when I began this whole learning project. So I started by taking photos of all the menus I encountered that had some Chinese on them — not necessarily when I was actually sitting in a restaurant, but also menus in the windows of restaurants that I happened to be passing. Obviously, the sharper the picture the better, and the higher resolution the better — trying to read blurry, tiny, out-of-focus characters is just self-defeating — so if a menu was large I'd photograph it in sections.
Often, I came across menus with both Chinese and English on them, which is great for ordering but less good for testing oneself. To get around this problem I made copies of all my menu photos, then blanked out the English parts. I used the GIMP for this (and jana has kindly posted a tutorial in gimp_gate to show you how to do it), but something simple like Paint would probably do the trick too. Obviously I had to set them aside for a while after this, so the English translations wouldn't be fresh in my mind, but I started building up my collection quite early on, when I hardly knew any characters at all, so I had them saved up for when I was ready to try out my skills.
Here's a Flickr photoset of various Chinese menus (mostly from restaurants in London) with the English cropped or blacked out. Feel free to use these for your own practice — I'll be adding more as time goes on. If you're not familiar with Flickr, click on the thumbnail to see the photo on its own page, then click on "Actions" and then "View all sizes" above the photo to see it bigger.
Other ways of finding menus to practise on:
- Google for the websites of different Chinese restaurants, and keep a list of the ones that have Chinese-only menus on them.
- Google for the names (in Chinese) of various dishes you're familiar with, along with the term "menu" (which often appears in URLs if not on the page itself).
- Search Flickr for photos of Chinese menus. Good search terms are 菜單 (cài dān) and 餐牌 (cān pái), both of which mean "menu".
When you're just starting out, you may struggle to recognise more than one or two characters on a given menu. Don't let this put you off! I found that actually trying to read menus was the very best way of building up my vocabulary. CantoDict's lists of common compounds are invaluable here — say you're looking at a menu and you recognise the character 菜 (cài), which means "vegetable" or "dish/course". Look it up on CantoDict, scroll down and click on "See all [n] compounds", and see if you can spot the characters to left and/or right of it on the menu in any of the words given there. If so, you've got another character and another word to add to your vocabulary list!
Another way of getting in a bit of practice is to read foodblogs that are mainly written in English but also include some Chinese. I've previously mentioned Red Cook and Sunflower's Food Galore. PigPig's Corner is another option (though not all posts are about Chinese food). Closer to home, there's thisisarestaurantblog, though again not all posts are about Chinese food. If you have any other suggestions, please leave a comment and let me know!
Finally, if you're in the habit of cooking with Chinese ingredients at home, you may find that you're able to recognise some of the characters that turn up on the packaging. I've found this useful for expanding my knowledge of the contexts a given character might appear in; for example, I knew that 牛柳 (niú liǔ) meant beef fillet, but it wasn't until I saw the phrase 蟹柳味 (xiè liǔ wèi) on a cup-a-noodles that I realised 柳 was also used as 蟹柳 (xiè liǔ) to mean crabmeat! (味/wèi means "flavour"; I am not sure there was any actual 蟹 in my noodles.)
Last week I posted about ways of looking up characters that you don't know, but that method only works for characters you can copy-paste from a menu on a restaurant's website. Next week I'll be describing another way of looking up characters that you may not have a copy-paste version of.