Menu Translation

Menu translation - not just a piece of cake

Menus are notorious for bad translations. 

Rather than make your mouth water, these translations often have the opposite effect. There is nothing like a Fried Enema or Braised Enterovirus to put you off your lunch.

Sometimes the notoriety that such translations bring can be a good thing. Your menu might end up being the subject of a blog, or you might even get into a book.

And of course, there is the novelty factor. Just how often do you get the chance to eat Explosion Cheese Durian Pie, or the less dramatic Red-facedambiguous.

chinese menu translation fail
Try this when you go to Pingyao

But jokes aside, the importance of good menu translation cannot be overstated. 

A menu is one of the most powerful marketing tools that any restaurant or food outlet has. If you want to convert the stomachs of our customers, a well written menu is a must. 

Good menu writing can also make food taste better. Add ‘crispy’ to your fried chicken and you will be boosting the crunch factor before it is even cooked. 

Just like the original menu, a menu translation can improve sales and make your food taste even more delicious. 

But to do this it needs to be a good menu translation. And by good, we mean one that can make a reader’s mouth water.

The only problem is that what may be appetising in one language may be a put-off in another. 

Mouth-watering in translation

Just exactly what it is that makes someone’s mouth water is often based on individual preferences. Like some people might enjoy eating kale, while others find it bitter, unchewable and best left for rabbits.

But perhaps even more important than individual preferences is the role that culture and language play in determining whether food tastes good or not.

Culture is the reason why McDonald’s started McCafé in coffee loving Melbourne and is the same reason that has them selling soybean milk in China. 

Culture is also the reason that marinated pig feet, spicy rabbit heads and century egg congee are all culinary hits in China. 

People’s stomachs, it would seem, are culturally relative.

This means that when we translate menus, simply translating the words from one language to another is not going to be enough. 

For a good menu translation, what we really need to translate is a menu’s ‘deliciousness,’ and to do this, we need to get inside the heads of our readers, or as the Chinese saying goes, be the ‘tapeworms of their stomachs.’ 

Understanding food in Chinese culture

The key to creating a good menu translation is understanding how food works in Chinese culture. 

While Chinese food culture is vast and diverse, there are a few general concepts that we here at mbChinese take into consideration when translating food related content. 

Nearly all Chinese food is understood within the framework of a staple and its accompanying dishes. In the south this staple is mostly rice, while in the north it is often some flour based food such as steamed bread, noodles or bing


The importance of the staple in Chinese food cannot be overstated. While it may not take prime position at the table and is often overshadowed by the more colourful of array of dishes, a simple bowl of rice or its wheat based equivalent is essential at any Chinese meal. 


Staples are so important in Chinese that the word for 'have a meal' is 'eat rice'. 


Indeed, many people brought up on Chinese cuisine do not feel their hunger sated unless their meal includes a staple.


In translation the concept of the staple and the dish is important when translating Western based dishes that do not have a staple. Dishes like salads, and soups, which make perfectly fine stand-alone lunches in any Melbourne cafe, may not feel like an entire meal to a person who requires a staple. 


By translating a staple into the dish, like highlighting the bread that comes with the soup or the noodles with the salad, one can 'staple-ify' the dish thereby making it more palatable.

Nowhere is the saying 'let food be thy medicine' more true than in Chinese culture. 


Food plays a large role in Traditional Chinese Medicine and even in modern times the Chinese kitchen is still part pharmacy. 


Similar to the famous curing effects of chicken soup, Chinese cuisine boasts many fortifying soups that are designed to increase health and vitality. But this is only the beginning. 


As all foods are classified into different categories of ranging from 'hot' to  'cold', this means that all food has the potential to act as a healing or fortifying agent depending ones ailment. 


Have a sore throat - cool it down with a boiled concoction of nashi pears with rock sugar. Having your period - keep warm with ginger and red date (jujube) soup. Have an exam - just eat more walnuts (apparently they are good for your brain... because they look like one).


Understanding the way that food acts in Chinese medicine can be important for menu translation, especially in terms of the infamous 'shanghuo' (internal heat).


'Shanghuo' is what happens when you eat too much food that is classified as hot, like salted peanuts, biscuits, fried meats and... mandarins. The symptoms (which only seem to occur after you have learnt the word 'shanghuo') including a sore throat, runny nose, mouth ulcers and constipation. See more here.


Given that western food is typically drier than Chinese food, people who are afraid of getting the dreaded 'shanghuo' will tend to avoid items on a menu which they see as too 'hot'. This will often include things like chips, baked products and beef. 


Good menu translations can counter this by highlighting the more 'cooling' relishes, dips and side salads that often accompany such 'hot' dishes. 


On the other side of the spectrum some people may want to avoid items that are too cooling, like watermelon, raw salads and ice cream. 


Besides from deep-frying your ice cream, perhaps the easiest way to deal with this is to add 'hot water' to the beverages section of the translated menu. 

Provenance plays an important role in Chinese food culture where many dishes and ingredients are often attached to specific localities, such as Lanzhou beef noodles, Zhenjiang vinegar and Sichuan hotpot (or is it Chongqing hotpot). 


When a connection between a dish and a place is made, the dish often becomes a tourist attraction in its own right. How could you go to Changsha without trying stinky tofu, or go to Shanghai without slurping the juice out of a Xiaolongbao?


Highlighting provenance can also add value to a translated menu, especially when the location that the dish or ingredient comes from is known by the consumer to be of high quality. 


When translating steaks and seafoods into Chinese, adding geographical terms such as 'Australian' or 'Tasmanian' can increase the quality perception of the dish. 


Of course, you have to make sure that you place you give is not too obscure and is known to the consumer. Something like 'Gippsland beef' might be going too far, but the more famous 'Barossa Valley wine' would be a hit with wine lovers who knew their fruit of the vine. 

While most of us may devote attention to the flavour of food, texture, or 'mouth-feel' as it is known in Chinese, is an extremely important part of food experience in Chinese culture. From the firm crispness of freshwater chestnut to the smooth slippery slitheryness of a slurped noodle, the movements of the teeth and the tongue against our food is often one of the greatest pleasures of eating Chinese food.


This is especially true for foods that require a little more 'work,' like meat or fish with bones. Eating such food requires its eater to get down and dirty with their meal, a process which often enhances the eating experience. 


Take eating sunflowers for instance. The 'mouthfeel' of applying just the right amount of pressure between your teeth to break the shell just enough so that you can draw out the crunchy seed with your tongue is so addictive that millions of Chinese sunflower seed eaters now have small indentations in their front teeth from breaking open the seeds. 


Understanding texture is key to creating lively and interesting Chinese translations of food that might otherwise be somewhat banal and every day. 


For instance, the classic jam doughnut which in Chinese is aptly translated as the 'fruit-jam sweet-sweet-circle' could be taken to another level if we consider the textural experience of biting onto a warm soft sugar coated deep-fried ball of dough and having warm jam burst into your mouth. Taking cue from the Durian pies above, this is what we could call in Chinese 'exploding-sauce sweet-sweet-circles'.


Understanding the way that texture is appreciated in the Chinese eating experience is just one of the many ways that we can enhance our menu translations. 

Traditionally Chinese cuisine recognises five main flavours: salty, sweet, bitter, spicy and sour. These correspond with many other things that come in fives such as the five elements and five directions. (e.g. salty - water - north)


These five are further augmented by flavours such as the mouth-numbing 'ma' of the Sichuan pepper or the mouth-watering 'xian' (unami) of well-cooked bone broth or (for those who don't have so much time) MSG.


How these flavours are translated in menus depends on who will be doing the eating. The Chinese 辣 (spicy) could be 'hot and spicy' at your local chew and spew while a more hipster cafe might have it as 'peppery and piquant'.

Good menu translation requires much more than just a simple word for word translation. Getting your dishes mouth-wateringly right requires a substantial understanding of the Chinese gastronomical experience. 

But even more than just creating delicious translations, mbChinese understands that your menu is just as much a part of your brand as your food is. With this in mind, we aim to translate not just your dishes, but also your brand.

Translating your food story

Chinese cuisine is full of stories and symbolism. 

There is the story of the dedicated wife of the scholar preparing for the Imperial examinations who, wanting to make sure that her husband’s noodles did not go soggy by the time she had crossed over to his island study, decided to separate all ingredients and mix them once she arrived (Crossing-the-bridge-noodles).

Then there is the story of the poverty-stricken girl from Guizhou who was too poor to go to school and was widowed with two children in her early twenties. Selling noodles with special chilli sauce to get by, she soon discovered that her chilli sauce made more than her noodles and went on to create the world-famous Lao Gan Ma chilli and make the Forbes list of the richest in China. 

Then there is all the symbolism in the food eaten during festivals.  Jiaozi eaten in the new year to symbolise family reunion and unity, while glutinous rice zongzi are thrown into the river on the Dragon Boat Festival to steer the fish away from the corpse of the great poet Qu Yuan. 

Indeed, it is hard to eat something in Chinese cuisine that does not come with some sort of story, symbolism or historical antidote attached. 

In contrast, western food has relatively fewer food stories. 

Admittedly, there is that one about the lazy Earl of Sandwich and his gambling snacks or the one about the fish and the loaves of bread, but in all honesty, most modern western cuisine is lite on fable and heavy on table, perhaps the only story that smashed avo on toast tells is one of millennials forced out of the housing market. 

In the absence of cultural or historical stories, much of the western food that is written up on menus is given within narratives of health, sustainability and ethical production. Check out Grill’d as an example. 

These are not necessarily stories that will resonate with your typical readers of menus that have been translated into Chinese, who are likely to be less interested in counting carbs then they are in devouring crabs. 

And this is where a good menu translation becomes great. 

Transforming your food story into one that is steeped in culture, tradition or personal growth, translating your brand narrative into one that can be easily understood and appreciated by a Chinese reading audience, all while keeping true to your brand, this is what makes a great menu translation. 

So, what are you waiting for? Click below to kick-start your great menu translation that will have you waltz into the hearts, minds and stomachs of hundreds of thousands more potential customers. 


Food and sex - Did you know?

  • Hunger and Desire
  • Love and Intestines

In ancient Chinese texts the desire for food is often placed together with the desire for sex, ‘Appetites for food and sex are part of our nature’ (Mencius 6A.4). 

We can find a similar connection in Adeline Yen Mah’s Watching the Tree where her brother states that, ‘To the English, the most important component for happiness is sex. To us Chinese, it is food.’

Maybe one day someone can do a ‘How many times a day do you think about … food’ survey.

Chinese metaphors of love as a hunger go back over two thousand years to the poems in the Book of Songs.                    

While I could not see my lord, I felt as it were pangs of great hunger. 
(Translation by James Legge)

So great is this connection that the term for ‘heartbroken’ in Chinese is ‘broken intestines’ (断肠).