Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Banqueting Through China

In our continuing series of posts from our recent trip to China, today's focus is Chinese banquets and eating.

(But first, if you happen to be a Washington Post reader, check out Kidspost, on the back page of yesterday's (Monday, September 3) Style section, which periodically features photos of D.C. area children holding up a copy of Kidspost at some farflung or interesting vacation spot. Yesterday, the Curmudgeon's children were featured in photo # 1, standing next to a giant panda at the panda breeding center in Chengdu, China.)

In China, it is customary to mark a special occasion with a banquet. One special occasion is having friends or relatives from the United States make a visit. For us, that meant a series of banquets in Beijing, Chengdu and Zigong, where we caught up with a number of friends and relatives. We also had an extra special day of banquets while in Beijing to commemorate the 80th birthday of Mrs. Curmudgeon's aunt, as well as our visit.

Chinese banquets involve much ceremony and tradition. A typical banquet table is round, seats 8-10 people and has a revolving "lazy susan" apparatus in the middle. Many Chinese restaurants in China--like the ones here--have private banquet rooms of various sizes to accommodate the banquet trade. A proper banquent room will be nicely decorated and furnished, with bright red or gold table cloths and other ornaments.

Chinese etiquette dictates that during a banquet, a guest will partake of all dishes served. Fortunately, our hosts were a bit forgiving of us barbaric westerners, not insisting that we try everything. Occasionally, our translator, when asked what a particular dish was, would politely tell us "better that you not know."

The thing about a Chinese banquet is that most dishes are served family style, rotated around the table so that everyone can get a taste. There is no menu announcing what will be coming. The one thing you can be sure of is that your hosts will not let you starve. You can be assured that there will be a LOT of food. You have to pace yourself, because there is no way of knowing how many dishes will be served, or even when you're getting near the end.

We can't remember any banquet that had less than 15 dishes (some are relatively small appetizer dishes). Our record was 32 dishes. That's a lot of food when put on a table with 8-10 people, some of whom are kids! The Chinese--all rail thin--somehow seem to negotiate this without looking full or tired. Us Americans, used to taking large portions of everything, invariably got stuffed about halfway through and then had to simply smile and keep forking it down as new dish after new dish after yet another new dish arrived.

About 20 dishes through one banquet the Curmudgeon noted the arrival of a sweet pastry-like dish and a soup, which surely signalled we were near the end. Wrong--eight more dishes were still to arrive.

Every now and then, you get to a banquet where there's just not much that looks very appetizing. Your host, of course, is trying to impress you and the other guests with his/her culinary tastes by combining just the right foods, textures, colors and smells, which, to a western palette, may not be all that appealing. Nonetheless, it would be rude to suggest to your host that they avoid certain foods, like turtle, frog (any reptile, really) sea cucumber, seahorse, etc. So you grin and bear it, and hope your host doesn't catch you in McDonalds across the street later in the day. (You can always blame it on the kids.)

And then there's the dish you just really love, but that comes out so late in the banquet you barely have room for it. At one of our repasts, we were on about the 25th course when some delicious dumplings arrived. The Curmudgeon and his sister-in-law wolfed down a few, somehow finding room for them in our stuffed tummies. Then, out comes yet more, and even better dumplings. Why couldn't they have been first?

At times, a banquet may even remind the Curmudgeon of a family reunion dinner while growing up down south. Fried chicken, watermelon, boiled peanuts, pulled pork, something resembling okra (but no iced tea, lemonade or fudge brownies!)

During the banquet, toasts will be made. If the hosts are really splurging, they'll include a bottle of a fierce Chinese licquer called mou-tai. It's served in tiny glasses to shouts of "Gambai!" Don't let that fool you--two or three shots of mou-tai and you'll soon be downing sheep's tongue and making your own toasts--in your own language.

After the banquet is over, and you're looking for a place to take a nice long nap, someone will box up the mass of leftover food. We suspect it will feed the host's family for the next week or so, if not more.

One day, on one of our long bus rides, we speculated on what an equivalent American banquet would consist of. Let's keep it small--20 dishes. We came up with: drummettes, mini-bagel pizzas, spring rolls, sushi, tacos, crab cakes, mini-dogs, mini-burgers, mozarella sticks, beef skewers, chicken kabobs, hummus, french fries, ceasar salad, carrots and dip, nachos, bacon wrapped scallops, shrimp, chicken fingers and chili. Would we find our Chinese guests at the local Chinese takeout later in the day?

No comments: