How to order food on holiday without sounding like an idiot abroad

One of the great joys of travel is the opportunity to feast on unfamiliar cuisine, says Kate Ng, but navigating prounciation on a foreign menu can be daunting – here’s how to do it right

Monday 11 March 2024 11:46 GMT
Kate and friends dive in
Kate and friends dive in (Chris Gibson)

On any quest for good food while on holiday, you will probably find yourself staring down a wholly unfamiliar menu, with not a lick of English in sight. You scan each item, the letters or strange characters swimming as you start to sweat. The waiter hovers in your peripheral vision, and you wonder if they know how clueless you are. You start to panic as they inch towards you, notepad and pen at the ready. Oh god. What on earth are you about to order?

If all this sounds familiar, you’re far from alone. A survey by meal kit experts Gousto found that more than half (55 per cent) of British travellers have felt hesitant to try local dishes in a foreign country because of language barriers. The reluctance to try and order in a foreign language likely contributes to the 63 per cent of holidaymakers’ preference to holiday somewhere where they can speak the language.

Be kind to your wait staff, says Kate Ng (Kate Ng)

As a Malaysian who grew up hearing, reading and at least attempting to speak more than two languages, foreign menus aren't as daunting to me as they are to friends and family who can only speak one. It might be because I’m accustomed to switching between spellings and pronunciations, or seeing characters that are completely different to the Greek alphabet. In comparison, most Britons living in the UK will only hear, read and speak English.

But this shouldn’t stop you from trying foreign dishes while travelling. One of the greatest joys of going abroad is tasting new and exciting foods. It’s something that my British husband and I often go out of our way to do. We look for restaurants and cafes located away from tourist traps, but that usually means getting a menu that neither of us can read.

Between my husband and I, we can usually figure something out. While Googling under the table is his preferred method of deciphering dishes, I constantly try to convince him that there are other ways to get help with the menu that don’t require typing and scrolling in silence while the good waiters, well, wait.

Smile at the staff

I hate to sound like a catcaller, but in a restaurant setting, a smile will never go amiss. It sounds really obvious, but giving the wait staff a pleasant smile and enquiring how they are can get you a long way. Most people will understand, “Hello, how are you?” Once you’ve won them over, it opens the door to questions about the menu that will help you make better choices.

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Even if it requires some gesturing a la charades, or some back and forth to figure out what they’re saying, asking politely and patiently is absolutely key. I’ve sometimes had waiters go as far as to find someone else who can help translate, so keen they are to help. It takes so little effort to build that little relationship with your server, and makes all the difference to the experience you end up having there.

Try an accent on for size

I must caveat this by cautioning that there is a fine line between mocking and attempting an accent. But if you have a good idea of the local accent and what the item you want might sound like, you shouldn’t be afraid of trying it out there and then.

Even if it requires some gesturing a la charades, or some back and forth to figure out what they’re saying, asking politely and patiently is absolutely key.

There’s no need to exaggerate the accent. This can slide into mocking territory, which is strictly unnecessary and should be avoided. But something I’ve found quite odd about Brits is the reluctance to say a foreign word with the correct accent, for fear of being singled out as uppity or posh. Why purposefully say “jam-on” if you know it’s pronounced “ha-mon”? It’s OK to know things!

If you’re worried about sounding silly in front of your fellow travellers, but you know how a certain dish should be said, I would suggest playing it off as a question to the waiter. This way, you avoid looking like a know-it-all and you might even get the added bonus of the waiter looking so impressed that everyone else is as well. That feels quite nice, doesn’t it?

I’ll have what they’re having

I love being nosy about what others are eating, so after taking my seat, I’ll have a good gander at the dishes adorning the tables around me. If something looks especially good, I’ll ask the waiter what it is. If they’re not able to point it out on the menu (which is rare) or explain it well enough, I don’t mind - I’ll probably order it anyway.

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Observing others while travelling is a great way to get inspiration, and it’s the same with eating out. So the next time you’re in a restaurant while on holiday, take a look at what’s being served up next to you. You just might find your next favourite dish.

Desperate times call for Google Translate

The only time I would recommend getting your phone out is if you’ve tried everything and nothing seems to be working. Google Translate is extremely effective now and can be really helpful in a sticky situation.

Adventurous eating? I’ll drink to that (Kate Ng)

The best thing about it is the voice feature – simply fire the app up, set it to the language you need, and ask your question. It will translate it for the other person, and they can reply by saying their answer, which will then be translated for you. This is a really great way to get around language barriers, and plenty of tourist-facing workers use it regularly. When I was in Istanbul recently, taxi drivers used it to communicate with us.

If you have the privilege to travel and eat new things, be unafraid! It’s far better to take a risk and try on an accent than let a little language barrier get between you and something delicious. Stay calm in the face of the foreign menu, remember to be patient and kind to the staff, and the world will be your oyster.

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