I went to go point a friend at one of the best food information sites in the world today, only to discover that Mei Wah: Eating In Chinese has been removed from its host, inu.org. Not only that, but they have blocked the Wayback Machine via the use of a robots.txt file and there is no Google cache.
I am actually despondent about this; this is a huge blow, because before I learned any proper Chinese, this was my survival guide to eating well in restaurants where beef and broccoli and orange chicken were most definitely not on the menu.
I'm certainly not going to re-create it: it was a masterwork. That said, there are several really important characters you can learn to decipher the Chinese-only menu, or to turn the terrible English translation into actual food. If this proves popular, perhaps we'll make it an occasional feature.
First of all, you have to know that there are not one but two Chinese writing systems: Traditional Chinese, which is used in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, by most overseas Chinese and on pretty much every Chinese menu in the United States, and Simplified Chinese, which is used in the majority of the People's Republic of China and by more recent arrivals. Where the characters differ, the Traditional character is first.
If you can't see the characters, you may need to set your page encoding to Unicode. Do this in the View menu of your browser (and don't forget to set it back if you want to).
Like Mei Wah, this isn't going to teach you to order in Chinese, unless you learn how to write these (hint: stroke order matters!); it's meant to steer you in the right direction.
Let's start with protein: if nothing else, you can identify at least that you are not about to have sautéed frog.
Meat. When it's not qualified with anything else, this means pork; pork is the default meat in China. Meat doesn't refer to poultry, seafood or fish in Chinese, which is why when vegetarians say they don't eat meat, they may be given fish, despite the fact that fish is not a vegetable.
豬肉 or 猪肉
If you absolutely have to differentiate pork from other meats (for example, "I don't eat pork but I do eat beef"), this is the qualifier; the first word means pig, but you probably could have guessed that.
叉燒 or 叉烧
Char siu. This is the violently red, sweet, sticky barbecued pork that shows up in such thing as 叉燒包 (try and figure out which popular dim sum dish that is). It literally means "fork roasted". Notice the absence of the words pork or meat in there. There's only one fork-roasted meat and 1.2 billion people know what it means.
Beef. Literally, this means "cow meat". Now you know how to write "cow" in Chinese, which would come in useful later if there were such things as butter or milk in Chinese cuisine.
Lamb. There's a famous chain of Sichuan hotpot restaurants called 小肥羊, which means "Little Fat Sheep".
雞 or 鸡
Chicken. You will not only see this when referring to the actual meat, but you'll also see it in the construct 雞蛋 (or 鸡蛋). Chinese people eat lots of eggs that are not chicken eggs; though chicken eggs are the most common, it's still often necessary to talk about what kind of egg it is.
田雞 or 田鸡
Just because you see the character for chicken does not mean you are off the hook. The word 田 means field (Iowans in the readership will know that it's a section split into quarters), and a field chicken is a frog. Incidentally, in case you've got Miss Manners writing the menu, the preceding is slangy; if you see 青蛙, that's the proper word for frog.
鴨 or 鸭
Duck. This is actually easier to see in the simplified writing; the radical on the right side is the same.
Snake. Occasionally, when having dim sum in places that don't cater to 鬼佬 (gwailo, meaning non-Chinese people in Cantonese), you'll see a cart go by with this character on the front. The other character, which we won't get into because it isn't useful, is "puff"... snake puffs indeed.
魚 or 鱼
Fish. No matter what kind of fish it is, it will either have the word "fish" as one of the characters, or it will be part of the character. For example, eel is 鰻魚 or 鳗鱼, which not only have the "fish" as a radical in the first character but follow it up with a crystal-clear reminder: THIS IS FISH.
蝦 or 虾
Shrimp. The radical (the "base" part of the word) is the same as for snake, 虫. It means "insect". Don't ask, because I don't know. The other half of the word, in Simplified Chinese, tells you how to pronounce the word in Mandarin. Isn't that nice of them?
龍蝦 or 龙虾
Dragon shrimp! The most expensive item on the menu that isn't speciality food like bird's nest or shark's fin, "dragon shrimp" is lobster. Incidentally, small dragon shrimp (小龍蝦 or 小龙虾) are crayfish or langoustines; the Chinese don't differentiate.
海鮮 or 海鲜
This means "sea fresh". The "fresh" is a disturbing combination of fish and lamb, but when you see this you will know it means seafood, which in Chinese means anything that gets pulled from the ocean: fish, shrimp, lobsters, sea cucumbers, Jimmy Hoffa, etc. This is one exception to the "no teaching pronunciation" rule, because when you add 酱 to the end of it, it becomes hǎi xiān jiàng... or, in Cantonese, hoisin jang.
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Another insect (look at the first character). This is crab. Be aware that sometimes you'll see only 螃, sometimes only 蟹, sometimes both; they all mean crab. If you see 毛蟹, that's Shanghai hairy crab, a huge delicacy and the reason for massive lines at Shanghai-style seafood restaurants from about September to November. True fact: 毛 is Mao, as in the author of the 红宝书 (Little Red Book).
Finally, for people who actually are vegetarian, the most common protein in a vegetarian meal is bean curd, a.k.a. tofu. The first character means bean (anything with red beans, for example, will have that character in it) and the second character... well, let's just wrap this up for this week.
(Wait, what? You still want to know? Fine. 腐 means decayed, rotted, spoiled. Aren't you glad you persisted?)