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4 Tips to Eat Well in Any Language

Worried you’ll be faced with a baffling menu full of unfamiliar words? These tips make it super easy to eat well, no matter where you are.

incomprehensible menu
Yikes! This is the actual menu that was placed in front of me at lunch today.

No matter how many travel phrases you learn before you leave home, you’re not going to be prepared for real-life menus. Why? Because menu writers use phrases like “Drizzled with a delicate reduction of organic Bulgarian truffle-scented oil with a flourish of piquant cilantro.”

Luckily, these four phrases exist to help you order something delicious in any restaurant in the world. You can use Google Translate to learn the correct phrasing and pronunciation in any language.

“What do you recommend?”

Imagine that you’re sitting in a restaurant and someone sitting at the table next to you looks up from their menu with a baffled expression and says “I no speak English. What you recommend me?” It’s irresistible, isn’t it? You want to point out something that will put a giant smile on their face, right? Imagine how strong your compulsion to help would be if you worked in the restaurant and your tips depended on happy customers.

Be brave enough to be vulnerable with your waitstaff— They know what tourists love and what they think is weird. They’re not going to steer you wrong. If “What do you recommend” is too difficult a phrase, try “Which is your favorite,” which is sometimes a simpler phrase and is great fun to use with children working behind the pastry counter or fruit stand. Kids love being asked their opinion and will be adorably serious about their recommendations for you.

“Something simple. Chicken and rice?”

If you are not an adventurous eater (or if you’re battling traveler’s tummy), the above might not be a good strategy for you. Chicken and rice are available in pretty much every culture around the world, which is why these words are included in our 23 words to learn before you travel.  Asking for something simple alone doesn’t give a waiter much to go on, but if you make a suggestion for the kind of thing you’re looking for, they’ll have a better understanding of what you’re looking for. This phrase, “Something simple. Chicken and rice?” makes clear that you’re open to suggestions, but also gives some guidance — they know you’re not looking for a culinary adventure. Obviously, if you’re a vegetarian or don’t eat rice, you’ll need to adjust your wording.  Aim to give a common example of the type of food you’re looking for.

blink blink…”umm…yes?”

After you order your food, your waiter might ask you some incomprehensible questions. Sometimes the questions arrive with the food, when the waiter sets down your plate and then says “Erbquth munim fava?”

Just blink and then say “umm…yes.” Waiters rarely ask you “Do you want worms on that?” They’re probably offering you something delicious, something most people like. Think about the questions your server asks at your local diner: Do you want ketchup for your fries? Ice cream on your pie? Of course you do!

But pausing for two blinks and then answering with a question mark “…ummm… yes?” makes clear that you’re not sure you understand. “Do you want the hottest sauce imaginable on that?” blink blink…”umm… yes?” will cause any conscientious waiter to put the hot sauce on the side.

Manage your restrictions

Of course, if you have dietary restrictions, you need to be prepared with your own specific phrases. The good news is that vegetarianism, celiac disease, and food allergies are global phenomena. They won’t be unheard of at your destination unless you’re visiting a truly remote village somewhere far from civilization.

Distill your restriction into the  simplest and clearest statement possible: “I don’t eat meat.” “I’m allergic to gluten.” “Anything touched by peanuts will kill me.” Run that statement through Google Translate, learn how to say it, and also print it on some cards to hand out before you leave home.  (Here’s a fantastic resource for gluten-free travelers.)

Have you tried these tips? Have your own favorite tricks for eating well on the road? Share in the comments.