Ordering Food When you Don’t Speak the Language


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!

(Editor’s note: We don’t include restaurants in our guidebooks specifically because we want you to go out and find what you like for yourself! But, many guidebooks will have a helpful index of terms to know and common food dishes… ours does!)

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?


About Author

Jaclynn Seah is an Occasional Traveller from sunny Singapore who really hopes to become a more frequent traveller someday. But for now, she has a little blog and shop over at The Occasional Traveller where she hopes to inspire and remind others like herself to take some time off and just... escape!


  1. Great ideas! Writing down preparation types, such as “fried, baked, raw” and meats would be so helpful in having a handle on what I’m eating. I usually try to look at pictures and guess. In certain locations, I’ve also had some pretty good locals to help me order!

  2. I love street food! When I was in China, there were the most delicious egg pancake/wrap things that I never worked out the name of, and little dumpling shops everywhere… yumyumyum

  3. Whee all your comments are great! And yes I LOVE street food. Particularly that of Taiwan. And Singapore, while most of our hawker food has been transformed into food courts, still does have some of the best food at reasonable prices.

    I haven’t tried printing out little pictures, though I take down the names of dishes that sound good and look out for those names when browsing around.

  4. I’m definitely gun-shy about being in restaurants where they don’t speak in English. But I think you hit the nail on the head with: “The best local food is often the least tourist friendly.” I have to keep that in mind!

  5. I have encountered this situation many times during my travels and sign language always seems to be the international solution. If you’re traveling Southeast Asia, at least everyone speaks a little English.

  6. I’ve been lucky here in Korea. Thus far, just about every restaurant I’ve gone to has someone speaking English. If I’m out w/ other Koreans they order for me. But I agree with preparing your answers when you go to the restaurants. My phone has a translation from Korean to English and vice-versa. I think I’ve used it once and it helped.

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  9. Hahahahah! “language is no barrier”….that reminded of a meal I ate many years ago in Palenque, Mexico. As an Australian, i don’t have a great grasp of other languages, but I felt I knew eough to get by. (I knew how to order beer, book a room and say please and thankyou). I went into a little resturant just before lunch time, and I did really know enough to work out that on the menu there were three set lunches. I recognied “arroz” – rice, “pollo” – chicken, “queso” – cheese. I couldn’t work out if hte last thing on the menu was “Jello” or Juice; but I figured it should be sweet and maybe cold, so that would be ok, and as for the rest, well that’s what travelling is all about, isn’t it? New experiences – I might recognise the other foods when they arrived and I might not, but hey, that’s all part of the fun.
    So the lovely lady that was working there came over and I showed her the number on the menu, to which she smiled and walked away – out to the kitchen. She came back with the first course, which I seem to remember was soup, and then aked me – smiling all the time -“Pollo o Quesa”? “Si”, I agreed, vigourously noding and smiling, “Pollo o Quesa”. A breath, a shake of the head, then, quizzically, “Pollo o Quesa”? “SI”, I said again, pointing once more to the menu, “Pollo o Quesa”. Smiling, but wondering, “how else do I explain? I want number 3, the one with the chicken and the cheese”. Again she disappeared into the kitchen, and came back again, this time very determinedly. Walking up to me, she asked, this time a little louder, and a little more forcefully, “senorita, Pollo, O Quesa”? “Pollo, O (pause) Quesa?”
    Feeling somewhat foolish, but still happy to have whatever it happened to be, this strange “chicken and cheese, Pollo o Quesa” dish, I – once more – smiled inanely, nodded, and pointed to the item on the menu. “Si, Pollo o Quesa”. The poor woman looked at me in despair, not sure whether to laugh at me or cry, or her natural inclination to hospitality warring with her (very justified) likely desire to bop this stupid foreigner who didn’t even bother to learn the language before she came to this country and started harassign poor innocent resturant workers with all her “Si, pollo o quesa” words, at which point some other people in the resturant finally took pity on us both. “She’s asking you – Do. You. Want. The. Chicken. OR. The. Cheese.”
    “OOOOOh” the light dawned. Of course. “O” is or, “y” is AND! Laughing somewhat sheepishly, and profusely thanking the people who had helped out, I said “Pollo! Por Favor, per mi, POLLO”. Smiling in relief, she nodded and patted me on on the shoulder, and went off towards the kitchen. Shaking my head as she walked away, it dawned on me…”Damn”. I thought. “I wanted the cheese”.

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