Some people learning Chinese find menu-reading particularly challenging. I, however, never found menus to be hard relative to reading other things in Chinese. I know someone who used to study Mandarin at Shida who was also adept at menu reading and who could run circles around her classmates when it came to food vocabulary. I also met an American in Japan who generally cannot read Japanese, but who can read ingredient lists in Japanese, including the kanji. Heck, *I* can read ingredient lists in Japanese, and my Japanese is way behind my Mandarin.
There is something the three of us have in common.
We all live on restricted diets.
The former Shida student is lactose-intolerant. The American in Japan is gluten-intolerant. And I am vegan.
Lactose-intolerance brought the former Shida student uncomfortably close to death (she loved that Taiwanese food uses cow’s milk sparingly). I actually met that American in Japan (who I also mentioned in this post) just after she had spent all day lying in bed because eating some gluten by mistake had made her so sick that she could hardly stand up (she let me borrow her laptop, which I used to write a couple blog posts). They were both incredibly motivated to learn how to read the names of foods in Chinese/Japanese. For them, it is a matter of life and death.
Though non-vegan food can make me physically uncomfortable (my digestive system is not used to it), my life is not on the line. Other lives, of course, are on the line, so this is a serious matter for me.
It is possible, because avoiding the wrong food is so important to all of us, that the names of foods in different languages and writing systems makes a stronger impression on us that it does on language learners who care less, and thus we require less review to get food vocabulary/characters into long-term memory, though I do not have solid evidence for this.
However, I know that we also get a lot more review/reinforcement simply because we are in the habit of reading food labels for everything (and making inquiries when food labels are not available … and having conversations about what is or is not in food). That adds up to a lot of practice quickly.
Also, we all make a significant effort to understand what we are eating even in our native languages. It is a part of our lives. Learning how to read food labels/menus in Chinese/Japanese does not seem much different, so we do not notice.
So what does this mean for Chinese learners? Well, I advocate becoming a vegan on ethical grounds (if you do eat animals, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE read this, this, and this) but this post is about language learning, not ethics. I do not have any shortcuts for learning how to read menus in Chinese, but I can say that, if you are motivated and practice a lot, it is possible to learn how to read Chinese menus with relative ease.