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October 28, 2016

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Spoonhunt: An app that digs out hidden gems in restaurants

BILINGUAL menus are not hard to come by but some of the gems of local delicacies are hidden in restaurants without English menus.

Emma Hsu and Adam Liu, young expats from Canada and the United States, have cooked up a way to discover those hidden gems — an app called Spoonhunt which translates the Chinese menus into English.

Liu, who is half Chinese, came to Shanghai about a year ago after he fell in love with Chinese food during a previous short stay as a student in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province.

“I was a picky eater back home, but was made more adventurous here because you simply have to eat and survive,” he says, recalling that he ordered the first meal he had in Yunnan from a Chinese menu which didn’t even have pictures of the dishes.

Hsu, who grew up in a Taiwanese family, and has been living in Shanghai for five years, recalls how tedious it was to translate all the items on a menu during a visit to a local restaurant.

But she was prompted to start Spoonhunt, which is free to use, for other reasons too.

“It’s awkward when you sit down at a restaurant but have to leave because you can’t read the menu or communicate with the waiters,” she says.

The location-based app, with data sourced from and similar Chinese sites through their open APIs, displays names and addresses of restaurants in both Chinese and English with bilingual menus and pictures of the dishes — if available — from the original data.

In a restaurant, the app users can click on a dish on the menu page with its English name, and then hit the “order” button that throws up a request page for ordering in both Chinese and English.

The Spoonhunt team lets the translation engine do the preliminary job, and then manually revises the results to “standardize translation of Chinese dishes.”

“The machine obviously didn’t have fen tiao (粉条), the bean noodle, in its vocabulary because it translated it into something about powder,” Hsu says. “That was when we corrected it and provided with the right translation.”

Another example is niu zai gu (牛仔骨), or beef short ribs, which the machine mistook for “cowboy bones.”

In other instances, they would have to provide with “less faithful” translation of some dishes so that their English names won’t be too long.

“Knowing what kind of meat the dish contains, for example, and its cooking method suffices to most diners,” she says.

Random searches show that there are still many bugs in translation of the dishes on the app, but Hsu says their 6-member team spends one to two hours every day working on revisions, including restaurant names, after making trips to the restaurants and checking their menus.

“Sometimes we have to go through five or six pictures on the Internet to make sure the official English name of the restaurants. We also have to create names for those restaurants with no English names at all,” says Liu.

The team says it would soon allow users to scan the signs of the Chinese restaurants and their dish names and provide English translations through the app.

Interestingly, according to the team, only 30 percent of their users are based in big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. The rest of them come from smaller cities.

“In the smaller cities, the expat community is smaller and most of the restaurants serve local food, but the expats don’t have access to it because a lot of them don’t speak Chinese,” says Liu.

Hsu says to get it started they put in their own money and built a restaurant software company that made some money. But now some of the costs have been recovered through investments.

The team is banking on China’s prospect of becoming the top tourist destinations in the world.

Another incentive could be the craving for “authentic Chinese food.”

“More and more people have come to realize that the Chinese food in the US is just American Chinese food,” says Liu.


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