The Right Etiquette For Ordering Food You Can't Pronounce

It's happened to the best of us: You're reading over the menu at a fancy sushi bar, or waiting in line at a Brazilian hot spot, and you start worrying that you'll fumble when placing your order by trying to pronounce a dish. Whether you're traveling within a different country where menus are in another language, or even if you're in the States and happen upon a restaurant serving authentic regional specialties, it can be overwhelming; but the menu is there to help you out. If you don't know how to pronounce an item, you can either point to it or describe it with key words listed on the menu. 

While some common international dishes are in many people's repertoire when eating out or ordering takeout, something like chirashizushi (sushi rice covered with toppings, instead of inside a maki roll) or zha jiang mian (noodles in a fried bean sauce, a dish popular in Northern China) might not exactly roll off the tongue.

Rely on using the menu description when placing an order

While waitstaff will likely appreciate you taking your best shot at pronouncing the menu item, there's another way you can interact with them when trying to place your order. Don't be afraid to read the description, or even pieces of it, if there is one available. Waiters are often extensively trained on each dish and will be able to discern which one you are referring to.

If you're in a different country and attempting to order in a foreign language, some of the menu descriptions might be easier to pronounce and communicate than the name of the dish itself. 

For example, it's likely that a server at a French restaurant will know you want the gratin dauphinoise if you ask for creamy, cheesy potatoes. But, one thing to know is, if you do opt to order via the menu description, try doing it in the way it's written on the menu so as not to confuse a non-English speaking server. As well, it's always best to attempt saying "gratin dauphinoise" first, or however the item is listed on the menu — your server will probably be more familiar with the official item name and likely welcome your effort, even if you stumble through it.

Use your fingers, and ask for help

If you end up mumbling through your order, only for the waiter to look at you inquisitively and express they don't understand you, there's another form of communication you can try to use that will go beyond any language barriers. 

Use one of your fingers to point at the item on the menu that you want. This is a universal means of communicating that relies on an understood gesture, rather than words. Odds are that your waiter will be grateful you tried another way of ordering, rather than adding to the confusion or just giving up and leaving the restaurant. And, in all cases, don't forget to put on a smile and use your pleasantries. Polite phrases like "please" and "thank you" go a long way, and typically are understood by non-English speakers. 

If they do speak English, ask them to tell you how to pronounce the menu item. They will likely be encouraged by the fact you want to learn about their culture, and you'll know how to order it next time.