From recipe aids to menu translators, Time Out rounds up the top Chinese
food apps to try
When Kevin Yu tried to impress a date with a fancy home-cooked dinner, things didn’t go exactly as planned. ‘The results were pretty embarrassing,’ he says. ‘I made small, common mistakes, like forgetting to add an ingredient or losing track of something time sensitive.’ Looking to curtail such disasters, Yu, who formerly worked on internet gaming behemoth World of Warcraft, decided to create an app that would almost literally hold your hand in the kitchen. The result is SideChef, a sort of fantasy virtual sous chef that provides step-by-step instruction in real time as you cook.
Choose any recipe from their broad database and SideChef gives a shopping list, recipe overview and detailed explanations as you cook; it talks to you out loud, responds to voice commands (essential for cooks with sticky hands), displays photos of each stage and sets timers for you. Polished and comprehensive, SideChef, which Yu repeatedly describes as a ‘culinary GPS’, elucidates the entire cooking process and minimises any potential mishaps.
‘Talking to people throughout our development process, we found that most people like the idea of cooking but some find it daunting to learn how to cook or try unfamiliar recipes,’ says Yu. ‘We created SideChef to make learning and experimenting both fun and seamless, because we believe cooking can indeed be for everyone.'
While SideChef could be considered essential for beginners, cooks of all levels will find plenty of material. Anyone can enter their own recipes and the database is populated with recipes from many well-known food bloggers and chefs from around the world. A system of rewards is built into the programme, allowing members to earn tokens and badges as they cook. Members can also rate, ‘like’ and comment on dishes as well as save them to a personal ‘cookbook’.
The free app is currently available in English for iPad and a Chinese version is set to be released in the near future. iPhone and Android versions will come out by the end of the year.
For many China newcomers, ordering at a restaurant with no English menu can be a bit of a comic gamble – awkward gesticulating with waiters, compounded by the fear of accidentally ordering something a bit too exotic. Those who can’t read Chinese often find themselves re-ordering the same handful of dishes they can pronounce, or they avoid spots with only Chinese menus. Waygo solves this conundrum, enabling users to instantly translate Chinese menu items into English so they can confidently stride into that local restaurant with the perpetual queue or that hole-in-the-wall that’s always packed.
Founder Ryan Rogowski found inspiration for Waygo through his own lunchtime language obstacles in Beijing, where he worked building mobile games. ‘When ordering food at a restaurant, I couldn’t understand anything on the menu except gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken) and ended up ordering only that for months,’ says Rogowski. ‘I thought to myself, what if an app could easily translate this menu for me?’ The solution was Waygo, which was a winner at last month’s tech competition, the South by Southwest (SXSW) Accelerator Awards.
The app uses optical character recognition in a box at the centre of the homepage that acts as a text scanner. Simply hold your phone’s camera over the Chinese menu and when the text is detected, the translation appears automatically along with its phonetic pronunciation. Since the app does not require an internet connection you can fire it up anywhere. The trial version includes ten free translations per day, with two upgrades available: 12RMB for a week of unlimited translations or 43RMB for unlimited translations for life. A Japanese version of the app is also in the works.
Though less sleek and user-friendly than the other apps here, two other handy food tools worth playing around with are FOODragon and Chinese Food Quiz. The former creates a list of Chinese dish suggestions based on your inputted tastes. After you’ve selected preferred dish styles, meat options, cooking methods and levels of spice the app churns out a list of common Chinese dishes that meet your criteria. Each list item is accompanied by a corresponding photo, common ingredient list and Chinese characters. Although the app helps foreign restaurant-goers decide and show the waiter what they’re hungry for, it unfortunately lacks pinyin
Those who are looking to improve their Chinese food vocabulary can also download Chinese Food Quiz, a basic no-frills app that helps beginners learn characters commonly found on Chinese menus. With explanations and memorisation tips accompanying each multiple-choice question, it’s a fun way to improve your Chinese food vocabulary so next time you’re ordering out, you won’t need any apps at all.