Making Sense of Foreign Food Menus

Food menus can tell a thousand words, or none. As an English speaker (ok, Australian then 😉 ) understanding a food menu in English speaking countries, or even countries with a latin based alphabet, is usually not too challenging. The combination of my limited Italian, a good knowledge of food from European cultures and a relatively adventurous palate mean that I’ve never starved.

Travel in Asia though is a whole new board game. Our recent trip to Japan gave me time to reflect on my previous opinions on food menus. Whether you’re travelling for business or pleasure, food menus are usually what we use to decide whether to eat at a particular restaurant. But what happens if we can’t understand the menu? What crafty methods can you use to help you through the options? Even though I don’t know even one Japanese character, I can rely on several other options when I’m travelling in this foodie paradise.

Picture Menus

In Australia and England I would always steer clear of a restaurant that displayed pictures with their food menus. These always looked tacky and, in my experience, the actual food never resembled the picture. In Asia this doesn’t seem to be true at all. And what’s more, even if there are English translations, sometimes they’re not particularly well described. But a picture tells a thousand words. I’m a big fan of picture menus in Asia.

Food Menus Made into Plastic

Even more visual than a picture menu are the plastic replicas of food choices from a menu. There’s something fake and revolting about them but, again, in Japan they seem to genuinely reflect the meal you get after you order.

The Vending Machine Menu

I’ve only seen vending machine menus in Japan. The food doesn’t necessarily come straight out of the machine (although I’ve heard they have pizza vending machines that do). Usually the machine displays the choices and you select them as if you would a can of drink from a vending machine. Walk inside with your ticket and you’ll be served at the counter as in a normal restaurant. Genius.

Prices

Even if there’s no pictures, no English and no waiter there’ll usually be a price written in western numerals. We found this in Asian countries as well as Arabic countries (although the Arabic numerals are very easy to learn). So whilst you may still not know what you’re eating, you at least know how much you’re spending 😉

Body Language

And if worst comes to worst then you can always resort to body language. In Japan and many other countries I’ve encountered situations where not a word of the same language was spoken between me and a restaurant waiter. This has never stopped me eating. Hand signals are a great way to start. To ask for a menu simply put your hands in front of you as if in prayer, and open and shut them like a book. This is almost foolproof, of course the food menu that arrives may very well still be in another language but at least you’ve got a place to start 😉

Pointing at other people’s food is another foolproof way of ordering. Point and use fingers to order up to 10 dishes 🙂 To be fair, I’ve been known to do this in an English speaking restaurant as well 😉

Asking for the bill is another interesting one. In western countries the traditional method of imitating a pen on paper in the air usually works, but in Asia this doesn’t always. In Japan we found that one way was a cross with your two index fingers. Seriously. Or, you could do as my friend KJF does. She imitates a duck bill. She thinks it’s funny but really the only thing that’s funny is that she thinks that 😉

What about you? Can you share any wild and wonderful food menus? 

A special note about Japan. You literally can’t go wrong wherever you go to eat. I have never eaten anything bad in Japan. Train station food, street food and five star food is all made to the very highest of standards. It’s part of the reason I love the place, not to mention the people 🙂

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