In China, while I did eat a lot of western food, I also tried many Chinese dishes that were new to me. For someone looking to experience authentic Chinese food, the Chinese banquet is an efficient and safe way to go about it – efficient, because of the great number and variety of dishes, and safe for the same reason, because if you don’t like one dish there’s bound to be another you can fill up on.
Americanized Chinese food is consumed in the same way as what we generally think of as “white American” food is consumed – three or four portions of something on a plate to yourself. Chinese people usually choose and portion their own food, eaten family style out of communal dishes on the table. For larger groups, the dishes are placed on a lazy Susan which is turned to get the food around.
The most important etiquette regarding the lazy Susan is that it should be turned clockwise and that all dishes make their way to the most important person before others stick their chopsticks in. By custom, the most important person will be sitting furthest from and facing the door (so you should never go for that seat out of modesty), with importance lessening the closer to the door you sit. People don’t obsess over if one person is one seat closer to the door or one seat further now, but the important person spot is still observed. This usually goes to the head of the family, the oldest person, or the person with the most social/professional seniority. Sometimes this person (if hosting) pays, but just as often the person who will be paying sits closest to the door.
Paying is another big thing in Chinese culture. For lunches out with coworkers or friends, going Dutch is becoming common, but splitting checks is unacceptable for large parties and formal social gatherings. There will always be a fight for the check, which is almost always loud and sometimes get physical (if the baijiu hard liquor has been flowing). It is honorable to be the one who pays. However, the person who pays one time will definitely not be allowed to pay the next time, so it’s a reciprocal system – one that encourages people to eat together more so it’s not like I’m complaining.
Banquets will last for a long time because of the number of dishes and courses. I’ll roughly illustrate with a banquet my mom hosted for some of my friends at Shanghai Min (Chinese name Xiaonanguo), a high end chain. Admittedly, this is not a great example of a Chinese banquet. We had eight people present and the restaurant told us the minimum expenditure was 200 RMB per person, drinks not included. 200 RMB is under $30 which would have been easily achievable in America but this is China, where eight people can eat at a place on the street for way less than 200 RMB. I was freaking out when ordering (another thing: in China, one person will order for everyone) because it was hard to order 1600 RMB of food – although Shanghai Min is high end, the dishes have very reasonable prices. The waiter felt sorry for me and let me order 1400 RMB of food, and we still didn’t finish a few dishes (taking leftovers home is also not ingrained in the culture the way it is in the U.S.; fresh food is emphasized and leftovers are not fresh). I was also trying to order things I knew my mostly non-Chinese friends would eat so I played it safe and ordered too many carbs and not enough vegetables or meat, so this menu doesn’t reflect the variety most Chinese banquets have, but it was delicious all the same.
Cold dishes always make up the first course. There will be vegetable and meat options. Usually you’ll see minced leafy greens, tofu, cold cuts, and roasted peanuts. Sweet, syrupy dishes are not uncommon, like the ones I ordered:
This is braised gluten. The brown, spongy chunks are pure gluten and are bouncy and chewy. This is a common preparation of gluten, which doesn’t have flavor by itself. This was braised in soy sauce and sugar with shiitake mushrooms, bright green peas, and an edible flower.
The orange chunks are sliced lotus root, filled with glutinous rice. The brown chunks are chestnuts. Everything was cooked in syrup until soft.
After the cold dishes come warm dishes and protein.
I ordered expensive seafood to get to the minimum. This included these amazing black truffle shrimp.
These small shrimp are extremely tender and mild, letting the truffle shine through. This was polished off quickly
I also ordered a lot of abalone. Abalone are a luxury food, up there with other Chinese delicacies like shark fin, sea cucumber, and birds nests. Chewing one of these is like chewing rubber, but in a good way. They don’t really have a taste so sauce is important. Glass noodles were swimming in this slightly-sour sauce.
See the “beard?” It kind of looks like a macaron “foot.”
These chunks looked like fish and chips but the batter was light as tempura. If you’ve ever eaten the deep-fried pork-filled taro balls at a dim sum restaurant, the outside was like that.
Some yummy egg rolls with mushroom and carrots.
This soup, which had a several different protein sources (egg, tofu, and meat) wasn’t well-received but that’s probably a matter of our foreign taste buds. There was also a fishy noodle soup no that went untouched.
After the “nutritious” stuff is served, the “filler” is brought out. Filler means carbs – noodles, rice, dumplings, buns. While dumplings are appetizers in America, and rice is eaten with the rest of the dishes, Chinese people serve carbs at the end of banquets to fill up. White rice is often not ordered or only one or two servings for individuals are ordered. White rice is eaten with the rest of the food at home but is an afterthought in a banquet setting. This is different from Japanese and Korean food, where rice is eaten with everything and is often the focus.
Very juicy pork potstickers.
Shrimp fried rice.
Rice porridge (congee), vegetable, and rice cake soup.
Tiny, tiny wontons.
Sometimes Chinese restaurants will provide fresh fruit as dessert, usually for free. Dessert is optional. We had tangyuan/yuanxiao for dessert. Think soup mochi. The balls are made of glutinous rice flour and are sweet and chewy. The liquid here is also sweet and sightly viscous, made with egg whites and fermented sweet rice, as well as osmanthus flowers (all visible in the picture), but tangyuan/yuanxiao are delicious in just hot water. Comforting and simple.
Our second dessert was chestnuts and beans over glutinous rice, all cooked in thick sugar syrup.
Chinese banquets: expect the unexpected.