Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Food and Language

If you had asked me before I left the US, I would have told you that I spoke no Thai, no Hindi, and no Chinese. I would have said the same thing after 6 weeks in India and 2 and a half weeks in Thailand. Now I know better.

At American Thai and Indian restaurants, dish names are typically listed in Thai or Hindi. So if you go to such restaurants regularly (as we do), you learn the names of your favorite foods in Thai and Hindi. So I actually do speak enough Thai and Hindi to ask for food that I like, which makes a world of difference when traveling in foreign parts. In Thailand we typically walked up to a street vendor and asked for whatever we wanted by its Thai name. When our food came, we handed over 100 bhat and got between 30 and 40 bhat in change. It was that easy. In India there was normally a menu written in an alphabet we could read, sometimes with English translations, not that we needed them.

In American Chinese restaurants, you only get the English translation of the food name, with no lesson in Mandarin. Plus, a lot of our favorite American-Chinese dishes don't even exist in China... so, um, good luck ordering when you get to China.

We eventually found the page in Lonely Planet that had common Chinese dishes written out in English and Chinese characters. At many restaurants we ordered by pointing to dishes on this page until we got to something that they served. Pointing to things other people were eating also worked pretty well... when it worked at all.

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