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Pair of Chinese Banquets, A

by Jacqueline M. Newman
and Gardner Pond

Holidays and Celebrations

Fall Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(3) page(s): 23 and 28

A look at a banquet menu can tell quite a lot, more than the location or the featured speaker, should there be one. The banquet menu is a printed expression with no taste, but it does advise about simplicity and/or complexity of the meal, also its economics and status. Banquet menus run the gamut from simple to complex. This past Chinese New Year in California, the same speaker was featured at one banquet in each category. She had some input, more for one banquet than for the other, but she was not a major menu decision maker. These banquets took place at different locations, the chefs were not the same; nor were the intended audiences. These banquets were not meant to be similar, but looking at their menus can serve as tools on how to evaluate banquet menus.

First, a commentary about the speaker written by Gardner Pond, a true Chinese expert. Following that, the two banquet menus, and finally, commentary and critique of them written by this magazine’s editor. Neither writer attended both meals, so taste comparisons are not possible, nor wanted, nor the intention of this article.

The first banquet was sponsored by the Association of Chinese Cooking Teachers (ACCT). It was their Annual Chinese New Year Dinner and a ten course banquet held at Chef Chu’s in Los Altos California. For the record, this meal occurred after the second one. The Banquet at Chef Chu’s commenced with traditional appetizers and cocktails, a ritual both eastern and western, followed with an oral presentation about the significance of the Chinese New Year to the Chinese family. Grace Young, author of Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, gave both talks. Prior to her addressing the ACCT members, she took time to introduce herself to the dinner guests, an opportunity which produced the effect that when she was formally introduced, one felt that here was a friend you knew.

Jan Nix, the ACCT president, in her introduction, told attendees that Grace was a product of the San Francisco Bay area and that she now resides in New York. She stated that the speaker was an author of more than sixty cookbooks, many in the Time-Life series. The amazing thing about the number of cookbooks was that none on them involved Chinese cooking. The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen is Ms. Young’s first Chinese effort; hopefully not her last.

Grace Young commenced her commentary saying that her friend Amy Tan felt that there was need for food perspectives to reflect Cantonese perception. One of these is to honor family, another to pass on your heritage of cooking. Ms. Young said that these became her objectives; and that it took five years of research to attain them. The Chinese book she wrote is a mixture of vignettes of family life and traditions combined with recipes. It was reviewed in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 6(2) on page 16. Ms. Young adapted all things American with the exception of the Cantonese cooking. She stated that there had been an erosion of Chinese cooking and she is trying to bring it back. An example given was that the wok is the traditional cooking utensil and by that she meant a flat-bottomed wok or skillet. There was no discussion of food preparation, nor of recipes.

Ms. Young then spoke about the Chinese New Year, which is time to retire debts and make amends to others, and that it is most important to honor family through reunion and renewal. The home is cleaned and the mind is purged of disparity. Only then does the family sit down to a good home-cooked meal. The foods served are often symbolic of health, long life, and prosperity through their properties or their names.

The spelling for both banquet menus below are as they appeared on their handouts. The Chinese New Year Banquet at Chef Chu’s that evening was a delightful meal of items representative of the holiday and the chef’s talents. That menu was:

Five Wonders of China Cold Platter
Double Boiled Winter Melon and Bamboo Mushroom Soup
Eight Treasure Sweet Rice Boneless Stuffed Squab
Garlic Baked Jumbo Tiger Prawns
Steamed Pork Ribs in Winter Squash
Yin Yang Chicken
Dry Scallops over Jade Pendants
Sweet and Sour Whole Fish
Seafood Rice
Pearl Ball in Sweet Rice Wine Soup

The other New Year’s banquet was held at Yank Sing’s newest Chinese restaurant in San Francisco at the Rincon Center on Spear Street. The banquet menu for this meal has recipes adapted from those in The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen. The menu for the second banquet was:

Deem Sum of Petite Spring Rolls, Turnip Cake, Shrimp Dumplings)
Glazed Roast Squab
Seafood Soup
Pepper and Salt Shrimp
Oyster-Vegetable Lettuce Wraps
Stir-Fried Clams in Black Bean Sauce
Jai–Buddha’s Delight
Sweet and Sour Pork
Poached Whole Sole
Fried Rice with Yank Sing XO Sauce
Petite Sesame Balls

Both banquets were fund raisers, The first one, above, was for a primarily Chinese group with a reasonable number of non-Chinese people attending; it is an event done annually by ACCT. The second banquet was sponsored by the San Francisco chapter of The American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF). It was held in conjunction with several AIWF events taking place that week. The attendees at this banquet were mostly non-Chinese, and the menu was prepared by a restaurant normally only open for dim sum, not for dinner. This second banquet was, as indicated, limited to recipes from the speaker’s book. Both talks were similar and centered around the Chinese New Year holiday, and at both, the holiday was explained assuming the audience was unfamiliar with holiday symbolism. It was reported that both audiences were delighted with their respective talk.

Prior to the second banquet, there was a book signing and lion dances. There was little opportunity for Ms. Young to speak with anybody other than those who purchased her book and wanted her to sign it when they did. At this banquet, there was no presentation cold platter. In a non-traditional Chinese manner, the hot appetizers were passed among the guests on trays by waiters and waitresses during the book signing and before everyone sat down. At the first banquet there was the traditional five (though it can also be seven or nine or more) cold platter items.

The second banquet, which was at Yank Sing’s, was really less of a formal holiday meal and more representative of a family holiday dinner. Though the menu said poached whole sole (a whole fish is a classic banquet final main dish, at Yank Sing the fish was served in pieces, no visible head or tail. Classically, at banquets, when the whole fish is served, the head should be facing the most honored guest.

The hot soups at each banquet meal were at two economic levels. Banquets should be costly special meals, to double boil a soup speaks of effort and economics, and wintermelon is not an ordinary food, while seafood soup can be. Having tasted this seafood soup, it was good but not banquet food. The clams in black bean sauce is something one can eat any time, the dry scallops one does not. So they are very special, cost big bucks, and speak banquet distinctiveness. This comparative continues for almost all of the dishes, i.e.: Pepper and Salt Shrimp served at Yank Sing are less special than the Jumbo Tiger Prawns served at the other New Year meal.

Banquets usually end with fried rice or a noodle dish. The reason given is 'to fill the cracks.' Those in the know do not empty that rice or noodle platter. If one does, that is an insult to the host; it shows that there was not enough food served and/or that you didn’t eat some of it because it was not worthy. Seafood Rice implies lots of seafood in the fried rice, while Fried Rice with XO Sauce only says that someone is fancying up a dish more in name than in contents. Probably, only a teaspoon or tablespoon of this costly sauce might be used, far less an expense that the cost and psyche of the seafood.

The final soup at Chef Chu’s ACCT banquet was a classic culmination at a Chinese New Year banquet. The Pearl Balls at Yank Sing were on a plate, not poached in liquid as is classically done for the New Year.

So these menus are indicators of differences in banquet meals. Another article about banquets will follow as there is no room in this issue to further detail classic Chinese banquets, menus from them, and other banquet issues.
Gardner Pond, one of two donors to the prestigeous Pond-Hertzmann Chinese Cookbook Collection at the Sheilds Library at University of California–Davis, was a docent in San Francisco teaching and touting Chinese food, a subject in which he has considerable experise; the other author is this magazine's editor-in-chief.

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