How do you communicate with locals when ordering food?

Hello everyone,
I spent quite a few months in Asia last year, especially China. I am a foodie so I always want to try small local restaurants. Unfortunately the language barrier made it difficult/impossible quite often, especially when asking for ingredients (I am good with body language and gestures but not everyone and every culture engage).
So, I was wondering: how to do communicate in restaurants when no one speaks English?


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That’s one of the awkward (but also funny) things we digital nomads have to go thru :slight_smile:

I tend to:
-ask first if the person attending me speaks English (they might call someone else who does speaks English or that understands a little)
-point at food pictures or point to the actual food (on street food etc)
-do hand gestures asking for the menu :pray: :raised_hands:

When communication seems impossible I just give up and find another place to eat. If you’re staying somewhere for long-term it might be useful to learn the basics of the local language.


We always carry this little book with pictures to point at. It has all the animals, vegetables, fruits etc. We’ve never used it though.

Thanks Iena. I was looking at something similar… but you said you never used it? So, how did you manage so far?

We actually never had a situation where we could not explain with hand and feet what we’d like. But it’s good to have it as a backup. For peace of mind.

I usually point or gesture.

Learning “what do you recommend?” in the local language is good.

And, seriously, it’s just food. Unless you wind up at some super fancy, high priced place or have food allergies, it’s not really a big deal.

  1. Point your finger onto the desired food
  2. Point your index finger up, optionally saying “one”. Here it gets tricky if you want to go for a custom quantity.
  3. Hand over the money
  4. Get your food

Another option is to learn the basics of the local language and you’ll be incredibly rewarded. Some of the best food I had was by accidentally discovering an amazing hole in the wall spot, where sometimes they don’t even have menus to point at.