A Chinese Banquet
Banquets are held to celebrate the New Year, the Moon Festival,
weddings, and other special occasions. Each event is associated with
particular treats -- filled moon cakes for the Moon Festival or New
Year's pudding, for example -- but there are also many common
characteristics and ceremonies involved. A banquet acquires much of
its festive character through 2 elements: the release from some
everyday eating customs (usually those that impose restraints) and the
exaggeration of others. At a banquet, for example, rice doesn't need to
be treated as the center of the meal, but the respectful interaction
between guest and host, a commonplace, must be performed with extra gusto.
The meal begins with the entry of the revelers into the banqueting room.
An elaborate ceremony of deference may take place at the door, where the
most honored guest is supposed to enter first. Two or more guests may hold
up this entry for some time, each insisting that the other is more worthy of
this honor. The ensuing debate can, among good friends, lead to a bit of
pushing, as the struggle escalates. Once through the door, the
process may begin again, this time over the issue of precedence
at the table. Usually, the guest of honor sits directly across from
the host, who takes the least honorable seat near the serving door.
Serving the Meal
Regular Chinese meals are served all at once, but a banquet is
about bounteousness, a host's generosity and prosperity, and the
joy of celebration, so the food is brought in many successive
courses. In a further display of exaggerated courtesy, the host
apologizes in advance for the meager and ill-prepared meal
about to be served. Hot towels are distributed at the beginning
and end of the meal.
What is Served, or Beyond the Grain
In a dramatic reversal of everyday habit, banquets consist solely
of special dishes. The meat and vegetables that serve as side
dishes at regular meals become the focus, and fan, or grain,
which is normally so important that every last grain must be
consumed, is relegated to the very end of the meal and guests
need only to pick at the fan, indicating their supreme satisfaction.
To eat one's rice at a banquet might hint that the
host failed to provide enough food.
What is Drunk
Alcohol is very rarely served at everyday meals, but it plays an
important role at banquets. (In fact, a banquet is called a
chiu-hsi, or "wine-spread") In the West, the type of alcohol
must match the meal according to set customs, and often the
guests' special preferences must be accommodated. This is not
the case in China, where the host often decides on one sort of
alcoholic beverage, either a wine or liquor, which will be
served throughout. Wine glasses are traditionally filled at the
start of each course. The banquet will probably be marked by
guests challenging each other to drinking games throughout the evening.
Commencement of the Meal
The meal begins with a toast by the host, after which there is a
long moment while the guests engage in the ceremony of beginning
-- the degree of politeness exhibited by a guest at this stage increases
with every moment he waits to start eating.
Throughout the meal, the host displays great solicitousness for
the guests. Guests may refuse offers of food or drink two times
or more without being taken at their word - or, of course,
without really meaning their polite refusals.
The first course is an even-numbered selection of cold dishes,
eight or ten are traditionally served. After the cold course
comes a showy soup such as shark's fin soup or bird's nest soup.
The guests help themselves to the dishes at a banquet, but the
soup is served by the host, and much drinking and toasting
accompanies. Following the soup comes a decorative meat dish.
More courses follow -- lobster, pork, scallops, chicken.
Between the courses, a variety of sweets are brought out.
Peking duck with scallion brushes, hoisin sauce, and thin pancakes
is often served in the middle of the festivities.
Traditionally, the final course is a whole fish, which is placed on the
table with its head is pointed toward the guest of honor. Throughout the
meal, the guests pay elaborate compliments to the food.
Enjoyment of the food offered is much more important than sparkling
dinner table conversation. At a banquet, the food itself is the
medium communicating the host's good wishes and the joy of the celebration.