Ordering Food When you Don’t Speak the Language [Go! Girl Guides Article]

Crossposted from Go! Girl Guides, where I’m a contributing blogger. Check out the site for more great articles from other freewheelin’ travellin’ girls that go!

So you’ve packed your bags, headed as far from home as you can; you’ve seen the sights to see, breathed the foreign air and… you’re dining on McDonald’s or instant noodles? Perish the thought! Food is one of the greatest and easiest way to experience the culture of any country you visit, so don’t just stick to what you know, get brave and order something local.

Here are my tips on ordering food in a foreign land:


Trust not the guidebook

Instead of using a guidebook for restaurant recommendations, trust the locals who know best. Your hostel clerk or concierge should be able to give you great leads on where to go. A tip: ask them to tell you where they would go themselves, as some hostels point their guests to the most tourist friendly place with an English menu, which might mean tourist prices and so-so quality.

If not, online forums give you more recent peer reviews, which makes the info a little more reliable. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, just pop into any place that catches your eye!


Language is not a barrier

Don’t worry if there isn’t an English menu to order from – pick up a few key words of popular local food, or write them down somewhere so you can at least get your basic request across to waiters who don’t speak your language. If your menu has pictures, do some pointing and gesturing. If all that doesn’t work, look at what your table neighbors are eating and ask for the same thing!

I had a situation in Seoul where my waiter was unfailingly polite, but didn’t speak a word of English, and he just kept smiling and bowing at me, hoping I would suddenly develop the ability to speak Korean. It was a little frustrating, but I managed to order a bulgogi set because that’s the extent of my Korean. The choice of sauce was a stab in the dark as I gave up trying to find out what they had and pointed at a random entry on the menu!

The best local food is often the least tourist friendly, so here’s your chance to have a truly local experience!


At least one good meal is essential

Even if you’re on a tight budget, try to give yourself at least one good meal. If you’re a hardcore foodie whose trips revolve around food, this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re more ‘Eat-to-Live’ like I am, then remember to reward yourself with a great meal from time to time! Often you get what you pay for, though that definitely doesn’t ring true for street food, which is cheap, good and tastes best straight from the cart =)

But the ultimate tip I can give is to just be brave and just go with it. I’m a pretty picky eater, and I believe in only eating what I like, but I also believe that you should try everything… just once!

Remember, you don’t always have to eat local if it’s not to your taste! While it’s a great way to experience a foreign place, familiar food is also a great way to get over homesickness =)

How good are you at digging out the local spots in places that you visit?


This post sparked quite a lot of comments on the original GGG post, and it was great fun finding out how everyone else copes with ordering food overseas!

One of my favourite places for street food would have to be TaiwanShilin Night Market in Taipei is famous for its abundance of street food, but you can get decent stuff cheaply from just about anywhere in Taiwan. Fried chicken cutlet, fried mushrooms, all types of noodles, lu rou fan (braised pork rice)… man I could go on! I speak Mandarin though, so ordering food is not a problem for me there.


Here’s a more recent experience of me trying to order and eating food in Seoul, a huge challenge because I’m not a fan of Kimchi and Korean is pure gibberish to me. My favourite Korean food all-time will still have to be Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken Soup). YUM.

Other food overseas that has made an impact on me: Pan au Chocolat or Chocolat Beignets (in essence, Chocolate bread) in France, fried calamari anywhere in Spain, any ramen or crab stuff from Japan… it’s time for a snack now I’m feeling HUNGRY.

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