The culinary arts of China are world renowned. This is best demonstrated by the fact that possibly every city in the world has a Chinese restaurant. Needless to say having a Chinese meal in such places as Madrid or Trieste or in any suburb of Sydney, is not the experience that you would have if should you be dining in the Peoples Republic of China.
Dining in China has to be prefaced by the Chinese concept of eating and their obsession with food. In Chinese society the concept of eating is really an obsession with consuming food. This originates from the many periods in the nations history where there were very few feasts but rather a common occurrence of famine. Even in the mid 1950′s, brought about by the so called Great Leap Forward, instigated by Mao Ze Dong, the country experienced a famine which took some 80 million lives. This concept of possibly going hungry has placed food on top of the social agenda . Consuming food takes many forms, from street side eating to the ubiquitous banquet.
The Chinese banquet is the ultimate expression of consuming food, mixing business with pleasure and is a means to show off in front of your peers. All grand Chinese restaurants consist of common dining areas along with many private dining rooms. Obviously the private dining room is where the obsession with consuming food and the whole gamut of social intimacy and table manners are best displayed.
Before we enter the room it is important to note that the starting time for such an event is usually quite early, generally about 6.00pm. The reason for such timing is because it usually takes place after yet another long winded business meeting where everybody talks at the same time and nobody listens. The private room usually sits about a dozen persons, it may have a small serving pantry and an en-suit toilet. Most likely it is an internal room with no windows, after all you would not want to be distracted by the gourmandising delights that will soon be presented.
The food to be served is not ordered by the individual but rather by the host, this allows him to be seen excessively generous and a man of fine taste…..it’s really a way of showing off.
Ok let’s eat! The first presentation, designed to stimulate the appetite, is usually rock hard peanuts, marvellous for dislodging the fillings in the teeth, along with delightfully pungent small dried fish. This offering clearly establishes that better tasting food is to come. A continuous barrage of dishes follow, one after the other, none necessarily better than the last. Before describing some of the variety of dishes it is important to acknowledge that Chinese cuisine is extremely varied. The food is regional and ranges from extremely hot spicy food in the south to bland tasteless vegetables in the north, the exception to these regional dishes is pork…..it’s in every banquet! Mao Ze Dong, a lover of spicy food is quoted as saying ” you cannot be a revolutionary if you cannot eat chilli “. Mind you he would not have felt the heat of the food as he never brushed his teeth, he just rinsed them with tea!
So here come the courses. There is a saying that in China that they eat anything that moves and if it doesn’t you give it a little push. You are served many courses on a continuous basis ranging from spicy bits of meat to vegetables to curried eggs. There are so many dishes that if you find one that is somewhat edible make sure you put a rubber door stop on the large glass lazy susan as it may be the only dish that is worth eating. The food may range from deer antlers to stir fried snake to turtle soup to fried scorpion and fish that have such big bones you have to suck the flesh for fear of swallowing them.
One of my memorable meals was the snake degustation menu in Beijing in 1995. The waiter came with a live snake which he proceeded to stretch in front of us before cutting its throat, then dexterously pouring the blood into our cups of Mao Tai. More about the booze later. Ok, that’s pre dinner drinks! First course, crispy fried snake skin, brittle and tasteless. Second course, wok stir fried snake meat, bland …a bit like crocodile actually. Third course, soup served from a big bowl as it contains the whole snake skeleton. Sweets….you would never guess…yup , yummy fried scorpion. Where the hell was the rice? You don’t get rice in Chinese fine dining …rice is food for poor people !
Fine food is served with fine wines. The two types of drinks, apart from Sprite and Coke, are a poor representation of local red wines such as Great Wall, Dynasty and Changyu. A 5 liter De Bortoli cask tastes better! The other drink is a white spirit, either Mao Tai or Feng Chew. Both are served tepid and taste a lot like Shouchu, the Japanese spirit which is alternately used for disinfecting floors in hospitals.
On one occasion, at a private lunch, I was served deer penis essence wine. I was told that its better than Viagra and a lot cheaper. The trouble is you have to drink it seven days in a row to achieve the desired result. Drinks are served in very small doses and there has been many a time where I gripped the waiters wrist to get a decent glass of wine from him. You don’t drink unless you continuously raise your cup in toast to any likely victim. This goes on all night, it is like prescribed medicine taken regularly.
Now that we have dealt with the menu we need to consider table manners….. what’s that? It is most acceptable to spit the fish bones or other bits directly on the table cloth, it is most acceptable to dash the tea leaves on the carpet when you want to refresh your cup. Eating with your mouth open is a sign to your fellow diners that you are really enjoying the food and is also a compliment to your host! After playing around with your food, which mum always admonished you for doing, the grand sense of relief is the arrival of plates full of cut fruit such as oranges and watermelon. You then know that the dinner will finish in five minutes flat,..you can race up to your hotel room and have that Kit Kat or Mars Bar and the mini bottle of Johnny Walker that you have been dreaming about whilst you were graciously treated to another ……….Fine Dining Experience In China.
Shanghai,October 22 ,2012
PS I munched on a takeaway burger while I was writing this .