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Banquet Protocols and An Example

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in the USA

Spring Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(1) page(s): 29, 30, and 32


China Pictorial and the editors of The Secrets of the Master Chef's of China,in 1983 advise that, according to legend, Chinese feasts took place as early as the 21st century BCE. There were feasts for living heroes. Soon those for others to be honored became popular, and after them, feasts for weddings and birthdays became traditional. Rules for these events were established, and the numbers of dishes served to go with grain foods became standard with some variations. Events for birthdays, in accord with traditions such as veneration, were such that older gentlemen had more of them than younger folk, men more than women, and those with status more than those without.

To this day, the Chinese delight in celebrating big (translate that as 'important') events. Most of these are done in restaurants because as they got bigger and living spaces got smaller, homes could no longer accommodate them. For any of these occasions the host, or these days it can be the hostess, likes to order special dishes as part of the special banquet they are arranging. They delight in planning and discussing their banquet meal with the restaurant's banquet or party manager.

Discussion is needed because these special meals no longer follow the 'Rules of Arrangement and Manners' set forth in the late Zhou dynasty (1122 - 770 BCE). They no longer use the square table referred to in the Northern Song Dynasty (960 - 1126 CE) as an 'Eight Saint's table. By the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE), newer rules came into play. They have been changing ever since. Those considered appropriate or in tune with the times, need to update knowledge of what things are now done.

What is considered important these days is a mix of ancient and modern, and most importantly, attendion to every detail. Tops among them are three critical questions: What to Order; Whom to invite; and Where to hold the event? Do note that 'where' plays third fiddle to the menu, whose choices are paramount.

Restaurants that have the ability to serve fancy meals have what are called 'canned suggestions' for banquets. Those 'not in the know' or those who worry about their economics use them as written. Most feel insecure and so they rely on them with the notion they are what will impress their guests. Everyone does want to serve great food as a statement of support as they honor their honoree.

Rare is the Chinese person who looks at these canned suggestions and says, "I will take that one" pointing to a menu of dishes and their set price. Before they even see these mostly mundane suggestions, serious foodie folk obsess about what they do want to serve their guests. Really concerned people arranging an important banquet check out several popular or favorite haunts to see what each one offers. While there, of course, they look at the prices. Then they go home and use the knowledge acquired to design their honorific event, be it a birthday bash, a wedding wonder, or whatever special occasion they are planning to plan. After their cogitation, they go back to the place deemed best and begin serious and detailed discussions with the banquet manager. To do less is to show lack of interest in the food and the honoree, and lack of personal expertise.

Our experience has taught us to plan Chinese parties by table, not by price per person. We know that most restaurant banquet tables seat ten, but most can easily accommodate eleven. With that in mind, people can seat more and serve more expensive food, all for the same monies they plan to expend. When planning, we are sure to contact the restaurant about numbers at each table after the dishes decided upon and the price per table have been negotiated.

There can be as few as eight or nine at a table, some will have ten, and in some instances arrangements can be made for eleven. These numbers will not impact pre-set prices pre table. What will impact things, even create disasters, is not advising management at the intended eatery. They need to have seats for the correct number of guests at each table. The kitchen also needs to know numbers at each table so they can prepare the correct number of servings per dish.

A good host or hostess wants everyone to taste everything in every dish and admire each and everything they arrange to have served. Speaking of dishes, it is wise to have the wait staff serve them so that they arrange it in a manner that everyone can taste everything. Eight shrimp in a dish at a table seating ten embarrasses both host and guest; that is a 'no-no' for sure

When planning my 75th birthday bash, I exercised thoughts of all of the above, and more. Some friends had arranged my sixtieth. That was an auspicious occasion because the Chinese in me advised them about celebrating five complete cycles of twelve years. Two parties were planned for my seventieth, one by husband and children, another by Chinese friends.

With the diamond year dawning, one westerners consider auspicious, I did want to begin that year with a great banquet. That said, I made all necessary arrangements, invited my nearest and dearest friends and family members, and wanted them all to come as my guests. It was to be on a Friday of a holiday week-end, my actual birthday. That way I could began the year auspiciously, not alert the wrong gods, and surely make it a really big birthday bash.

Wine is auspicious and appropriate. Arrangements for some and for carbonated drinks for those that do not imbibe and those too young to do so, was planned. I carefully selected a restaurant that allowed us to bring our own alcoholic beverages; I do like good drinks! My husband bought and brought several cases, and the house provided non-alcoholic bubbly and good tea, too. The latter was needed because I am a tea-aholic.

The number of dishes served at important events a hundred years ago was close to thirty, even more. Emperors would have ordered seventy-five different ones for their own 75th, but eating that many was not wishing health on my guests or for myself. As a mere mortal, I limited main dishes to eight, added a multi-item cold platter, a bowl of long life noodles, a platter of long-life buns, and another of fresh fruit. But what should the main dishes be?

Cold platters at terrific banquets feature piles of high-priced premium protein foods. The more expensive, the more upscale the guests usually feel about them. Before selecting them or anything else, for that matter, host or hostess need to carefully consider the preferences of the guests, health concerns they may have, etc. If one of them can not eat something for health reasons, why serve it or order one or two other dishes sent to that person’s table. The latter notion is a current means of eliminating a problematic food.

Main dishes at banquets are heavy with expensive cai dishes, almost none with fan. Rice and other staple foods are not served during special banquets nor are pork dishes. These are the items most consumed at other times so why burden guests with them at banquets?

One last item to consider. Some large banquets are called 'eating by ticket' meals, but at the one I was planning, crashers were not expected, and tickets not needed. I did know every guest. What was needed, was the best dishes this birthday girl and her guests could adore. The invites carefully set out times more western, than Chinese. Had it been the other way around, the time on the invite would be the actual time to begin eating. In the United States, at least, half the guests would miss the fist course. For those that did arrive as the invite indicated, there was wine, soda, and tea available at each table.

Welcoming guests is a must and a pleasure. Seating cards in the entry-way did direct them to host-determined tables. Ones own selection of where to sit at a banquet is considered rude. That well-thought-out task belongs to the host or hostess.

My birthday banquet began with a cold platter highlighting the crackling crispy skin of suckling pig (do see its picture above). I knew many guests delight in this very special item, and they did as it went quickly. Banquet cold platters include jellyfish, better ones order the best money can buy, and at this one, this predictable cold plate pleasure was consumed with not a squiggle left on any plate. Accompanying these two terrific starters was orange-tinged squid prepared with egg whites, Chinese ham, long-cooked beef flavored with star anise, and more. This type of platter can be called 'five stars around the moon.' In every special sky, the more stars the better, and this one had many sparklers. Fancier banquets would have the dish pictured on this page plus five smaller plates of more protein items. This would make the 'around the moon' a literal visual.

Wanting a presentation soup, and willing to pay the elevated tariff for an out-of-season one, I ordered a special seafood soup prepared in a whole wintermelon. The banquet manager did accommodate but could not have its exterior carved with an auspicious design. His eatery had not enough experts on staff to prepare the many needed, one per table. It was very important that a wait-person served this dish to assure no melon collapsing and scalding a guest.

The servers, as can be seen in the photograph above, knew to carve around the outside of the wintermelon. They knew to leave a wall of support and give each guest a large piece of the melon and lots of inner goodies. Seconds were available for all who wanted more, me among them. One guest's thank you note indicated the banquet was smashing, the soup stupendous, its looks lovely, and its tastes was tops.

Before the banquet and expressly to please my husband, I did order one huge oyster per person, with a black bean sauce topping. The succulent beauties came barely cooked, juicy, and oh-so-good! Though each guest had only one, they were amazed that the size demanded three or four bites to down this pearl of the sea. This dish is not a banquet food, and the banquet manager suggested not serving it. However, those who love oysters, deemed it genius to have such a good oyster when they are out of season, hard-to-get, and expensive. And, they were very good, indeed. The knowledgeable chefs made them succulent, and with super texture. Chinese and western guests said they would include them when arranging their own future banquets.

Peking Duck is a banquet food. I asked for one long-roasted in a specially designed oven, not fried-off, and with northern buns, thick and folded in half. In them would go the yummy crispy skin, scallions and hoisin sauce. The duck meat and bones, as seen on this page, were served later in the meal. The crisp deep-brown delicious duck skin was carved in the banquet room, slipped into those folded buns, accompaniments added. The contrast of crisp and soft, sweet and rich, was what makes this dish so heavenly, and what the picture shows is what is served after the skin course is finished.

Great banquets have lots of special foods and oodles of seafood; this banquet did, too. Following the duck, a special sea cucumber, one of six foods considered honorific by the Chinese, was served with abalone and baby bokcai. The color and texture contrast, here too, was wonderful. The long-reduced super sauce it swam in was just yummy. My husband, who is prone to check out items not consumed on other tables and he did at this event, bemoaned the fact that every morsel of this rich rewarding dish was gone, none left for him to filch.

I had asked that steamed sea bass be served early in the meal before folks get too stuffed to enjoy this swimming delight. Though not Chinese to do anything but serve it last, many guests commented it was a banner idea. Their empty plates proved concurrence as all was devoured.

Wanting Chinese dishes north and south to please guests who came from many places in China, a luscious lamb dish was ordered and served next. I had eaten these chops in a west coast restaurant some years earlier, and did want the baby lamb chops on the bone arriving pointing sky-ward and sitting on simply cooked greens. Knew they would be winners; and they were. Did notice every chop eaten to the bone. Was pleased that many guests deemed it a brilliant dish, too.

A pair of lobsters, more dishes of the sea, came next. They arrived with lots of cut up ginger, scallions, and greens. While whole lobsters look great at banquets, eating them is a sloppy operation. These crustaceans came cut up, claws and body parts remaining. Their taste was terrific because fish and seafood cooked in shells or on bones do taste sweeter. They, too, were devoured even though they came after many other delicious dishes.

My daughter adores sweet pea leaves, one of the most yummy of Chinese greens. Therefore, dou miao with generous topping of crab in a simple garlic sauce was ordered. She and all were thrilled. After this dish, this birthday banquet ended with hand-pulled long-life noodles mixed with Chinese black mushrooms, sea food, and vegetables. Immediately following the long-life dish came a platter of steamed long-life buns filled with sweet bean paste. This duality of wishes was appropriate and welcome, as was the platter of cut-up fresh fruit that followed. Hostess, family, and friends left filled with fantastic foods, fine friendship, and additional birthday good wishes.

My grandchildren ended the meal with: "Why wait until you are eighty, or eighty-four"–-which is the next Chinese twelve-cycle year. This meal was so super, they said, let's do one every year you are happy and healthy. "If every birthday is this terrific, will banquets lose their panache," I asked loud and clear? The reply was a chorus of 'no's.' One grandson added that he would pay for the privilege of enjoying another meal as great as this one. Now there is a bright youngster who offered me a tempting deal. Shall I accept?

                                                                                                                                                       
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