How to Eat a Chinese Meal

China News #33 – 2/2/08 How to Eat a Chinese Meal

Someone may be planning a trip to China and it occurred to me that you might need some guidance with eating at a Chinese table.

Dim Sum is served more like a coffee break, a collection of individual small dishes reminiscent of English Tea only not as sweet. But usually the main meal is at lunch which the Chinese believe takes at least 90 minutes.

There are not many formalities to eating in a Chinese home or restaurant but there are things you need to know. First let the host seat you, There may be someone at the table who especially wants to talk to you or whose English is better and who can translate. Usually you will be seated as far from the door as the round table allows. Some big cities have rectangular tables but I like the camaraderie of the circle best. You can put your coat over the back of your chair. You may not see a coat rack. If you are in a private home you should bring a small gift, wine is fine, or flowers.

If the host is a Christian he may ask you to bless the food, which you will do in English of course so most will not know what is going on. Otherwise just wait for someone at the table to start and you are okay. If you are the honored guest you begin first.

First you open up your chopsticks. If they are linked together you break them apart like a pulley bone and then, if need be, scrape them together to get off any loose pieces of wood. The better restaurants have chopsticks in packages which need no work, and possibly a small cloth towel. The best restaurants have heated towels, but be careful; they put these in the microwave and they may be very hot.

If this is an ordinary Chinese meal there are few customs. You should use chopsticks for almost everything, including passing around the tiny paper cocktail napkins. Take more than two as you will go through them. Some will even use chopsticks to remove gristle from their mouths – a tricky business.

Americans use their hands more often than the Chinese, but I doubt if they think ill of us if we do. You will get a tiny saucer and a spoon for your food plus a bowl for sauces and soups. You should have cups for hot tea and beer or wine depending on what the host has ordered. No water is served as it is not safe to drink. The beer is very weak however and it is routinely the beverage of choice.

The food arrives in waves. The host will order one dish for every single person at the table so 15 people means 15 dishes at least in addition to all the condiments. Your opinion will not be sought!

Each Chinese meal has two hot and two cold dishes at a minimum. You may guess wrong which is which. The spinach may look hot and be cold. There are a host of little dishes of pickled cabbage and other vegetables which are usually either very spicy or very salty. I am inclined to believe the Chinese diet has more salt than ours in spite of the fact that they have no salt cellars on the table except in the big cities, or very expensive places.

The Mongolian hot pot takes extra effort. The lazy Susan in the middle will contain several bowls of sauces. One is called “sesame butter” of pulverized sesame seeds. This is very mild and is known in the USA as sesame paste or tahini. You fill your bowl about one-third with that and then add other sauces to make it hotter. I prefer the fermented tofu which appears as a bright red cube. Half of this is enough for your tiny sauce dish. Then you can dilute this with tea, beer, or cooking water.

Or you can add red sauce (mild) or the green one (spicier) or the hot peppers and vinegar which comes around in a bottle. Or a little bit of everything. For the hardiest there are hot peppers in a small dish. You may add one small pepper to the cooking water as it is generally mild.

Each diner should get his own little pot of boiling broth which contains ginger, dates, garlic, parsley and seasonings. Your pick up what you want and add it to the boiling water. When cooked add it to either in the sauce or on your tiny saucer. This gives new meaning to picking at your food – something your mother never said to do. Here of course it is required. The advantage of this is that you get to eat what you like best and if you find something you don’t care for nothing is wasted and the hostess is not miffed.

In the country they have common pots in the middle of the table. One half of the pot is very spicy and the other half is mild. I suggest that you be cautious with the spicy side if you are not used to this. If there are a many people at the table you may have trouble reaching the pot. Not to worry, a kind soul will help you. In Mongolia milk is added to the cooking water, and perhaps Mongolian tea will be served, that is tea diluted with milk.

This is what you might find available for the pot: beef and lamb sliced paper thin, green onions, bitter weed which has medicinal properties I am told, bok choy they call kale, spinach, sliced white onions, cabbage, pumpkin, white potatoes, or sweet potato sliced thin, various mushrooms, woods ears mushrooms which look like small black shiny flowers, tiny white mushrooms on a very long stem (the large mushrooms require you to remove the woody stem), frozen shrimp, and various noodles and fish balls.

The clear noodle is made of potato flour, although it looks like cellophane noodles made of rice which we have in the States, wheat noodles, white and green, infused with green bean stock. Long noodles are a sign of long life so you will be forced to cut the noodles with your teeth or chopsticks. There will be frozen as well as fresh tofu, some of it may be green which is made of green beans not soy beans. Dumplings are hard to make but required for all holiday meals. Dumplings are stuffed with vegetables, pork beef or lamb. Rice is not put into the pot.

After many dishes are on the table and everyone has eaten heartily, the main dish comes forth. If you have been eating as though the end is in sight, too bad for you. The main dish is rice. The Chinese are accustomed to Westerners not eating the rice and will not condemn you for refusing it. The Chinese put the rice bowl to their mouths and shovel it in with their chopsticks. They may add the broth from any of the dishes on the table to the rice, so you might try that as well as that is where the best flavor is.

If this is not a hot pot meal, the dishes will all be on the lazy Susan, cucumber salad, melons sliced thinly for cooking or for eating raw, fish soup, raw tomatoes, onions thinly sliced. My favorite veggie is a giant radish which is red on the inside or frozen, thawed cucumbers. Dip them into a thick soy sauce.

You will have a large choice of food – fried pork, sweet and sour pork balls, pieces of chicken and vegetables, duck, whole fish which skirts around the lazy Susan and you pick at it as it goes by, dried spicy fish, spicy pork ribs, sometimes even lobster. There may be a meat stew with tomatoes, potatoes and beef, leek and eggs (an interesting dish), fried and salted peanuts, eggs with tomatoes, and woods ears mushrooms which have no taste but an interesting texture in a vinaigrette sauce, sometimes made with orange juice. An egg, or a portion of a hard boiled egg, might be found floating in the broth. Sweet dishes include apples, pears, oranges, grapes and bananas in a sweet milk sauce, or slices of goat cheese in the same sauce. No pies, cakes or candies ever; those are for birthday parties.

A good bit of drinking goes on at these feasts. A toast means you should raise your glass and click with anyone within arms length or if not, click it against the glass lazy Susan. In China getting a little drunk at these dinners is considered a good sign, that you trust your host and are willing to let down your guard. Of course you can always toast using your tea cup and probably after all this toasting and drinking no one will notice or care.

I would recommend that you propose a toast to the host – praising his table and thanking him for an elegant meal, wishing him long life and prosperity for himself and his children. Someone near you may translate – hopefully correctly!

After the meal at noon, it is expected that you will take a nap at home. Everyone else will!

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