When I first began pondering the thought of teaching myself to read Chinese menus, I asked a few people whether they thought it was a good idea. While some said "yes" immediately, others warned me that I might find it difficult or even impossible, due to the common use on menus of "flowery" or poetic descriptions of dishes.
I took this warning to heart, and gave up on the project for some time, but then I came to realise that this is not by any means an intractable problem. If I'm capable of learning that "spotted dick" is not a venereal disease, surely I'm also capable of learning that "ants climbing a tree" is actually mung bean thread noodles with minced pork; or that the "three freshnesses of the earth" are fried potato, green pepper, and aubergine; or that "lions' heads" are large meatballs, usually braised with cabbage or some other vegetable to represent the lion's mane.
Indeed, regular readers will already know that pockmarked old woman's beancurd is tofu in a spicy sauce with minced pork and chilli bean paste, golden sands corn is fried sweetcorn kernels seasoned with mashed salted egg yolk, and fish fragrant aubergine in fact contains no fish. Perhaps the best way to look at it is as having to learn two categories of knowledge: first, what the characters mean, and second, what the dish names mean. The second set of knowledge needs to be acquired regardless of the language you want to learn to read a menu in — even to read a menu in your native tongue.
So, how do you learn the things in the second category? Having identified the characters in the name of a dish, how do you find out what the dish actually is? I have three main strategies for this, all involving searches on the name (as written in Chinese characters):
- Search for it on Flickr (example) or on Google Images (example). With luck, this will throw up several photos of the completed dish.
- Search for it on YouTube (example). You're quite likely to find a video of someone making it. Note that unlike Google, YouTube sometimes gives different results depending on whether you search with traditional or simplified characters, so it's worth trying both.
- Do a regular web search but also include the English translation of one or more of the characters (example). Sometimes all you'll find is a succession of less-than-useful translations along the lines of "chicken in sauce", but other times you'll find recipes or even entire essays on the history of a dish.
These strategies aren't foolproof — I still have no idea what 老成都耙耙菜 is in English, for example — but I find it works way more often than not.
A fourth strategy, of course, is just to go along to the restaurant where you saw the dish advertised, and order it. There's a blog post on Sinosplice that backs me up on this one! In fact, the dish linked in the previous paragraph is one that I ordered partly because I had no idea what it was (other than that it involved vegetables) and I wanted to find out. It was pretty damned tasty.