Ordering Soy-Free From A Picture Menu

Hello! Welcome to Beyond Soy!

I’m back from my trip to China! I’m working on a complete "Soy in China" post, but for today, let’s talk about ordering food! 

Can you pick soy-free food based solely on a picture? Most menus in China had pictures of each item with some Chinese characters describing each dish and, if you are lucky, a reasonable English description. If you aren’t lucky there is no English, and if you are really unlucky there are no pictures! Can you order soy-free food from a picture? I think so!

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Step 1: I used the available English descriptions as much as possible. I tried to use these descriptions to identify several dishes that I thought might be soy-free. These descriptions don’t include any ingredient information so their usefulness might be limited, but they are better than nothing. It’s also possible that the English translations are not very descriptive (or accurate), or they might not exist at all. So what then? 

Step 2: Try to use Google Translate to identify what each menu item is or what it contains. Google Translate isn’t a perfect option, but it can provide a little information and help give you a better sense for the dish. (expect a post on the specifics of using Google Translate in the coming weeks)

Step 3: After you’ve exhausted your language options (both English and translations) to get a basic idea for the menu items, scan the pictures for clues. An important thing to mention here is that the menu’s pictures aren’t necessarily accurate or representative of what you’ll get. Don’t trust them completely, but they should give you some idea of the dish you are about to order.

The main things that I looked for in the pictures were sauces and tofu. I started with tofu by looking for square chunks of white or grey material. If picture had these sorts of objects, I assumed that the dish contained soy. (I know that tofu comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, not just white chunks, but this simplification helped eliminate dishes up front). Next, I tried to look for sauces. Lots of items came with sauces, but there were plenty of sauce-free options. If a menu item had a sauce, I assumed that the sauce contained soy. This may not have been an accurate assumption, but I figured that it was better to be safe than sorry. Most noodles were served with sauce, so I recommend largely avoiding noodle dishes to avoid unknown sauces. 

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Finally, after checking the pictures for tofu and sauces, I looked for fried items. Since I didn’t know what kind of oil was used for frying, I avoided fried food to avoid soy. It can be a little challenging to identify if a food is fried from a picture. I just made my best guess and tried to tie in any information I learned from any English or translated Chinese.

Step 4: Learn from your previous orders. Since much of the food is similar between restaurants, try to identify foods that you’ve already tried. Finding a few menu items that are reliably soy-free can remove some of the stress of eating where you don’t speak the language. For example, I enjoyed finding Chinese hamburgers on the menu because I knew dependably what I would get (and they were relatively easy to identify via picture).

While I was never 100% certain that a meal or dish would be soy-free only by looking at the picture, by making some assumptions and following some basic rules I was able to make some reasonable guesses about the presence of soy in a variety of dishes. When in doubt (note that I never did this), you can always ask someone to translate for you. Many of the younger generation in China speak English and they can translate a specific menu item and tell you what it likely contains (or even ask the restaurant for you) if you absolutely need to know.

Ordering from a picture menu doesn’t need to be challenging, but can be scary because it doesn’t provide very much ingredient information. By carefully reviewing the pictures and using any text information you can find, eating soy-free from a picture menu is totally do-able, even if you don’t speak the language!