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Chinese Banquets

by Irving Beilin Chang

Holidays and Celebrations

Fall Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(3) page(s): 9 and 10

Chinese people love company, so they often get together with friends and relatives for a meal and they pick any occasion or excuse and organize a banquet. In younger days, my wife and I often had many relatives and friends for a cookout during the summer time or at any season we would invite them to a sit down dinner to celebrate my parents or our own birthdays and anniversaries. Today, after retirement, we prefer to arrange a banquet at a restaurant so that we can enjoy it with them and no one needs to hard to prepare the meal.

Among our own peers, we often discuss the new and best Chinese restaurants in town and compare notes as to what special offerings these restaurants have Then we try to think of any special occasion and organize a banquet. On small occasions, six to ten people make a good selected group; and on special occasions, we might have three to four hundred people for a real celebration.

Why would we plan a banquet and not go to a restaurant for a randomly unannounced meal? Actually, there is nothing wrong with either idea, but in analyzing the situation, a banquet is generally better planned by restaurants. In most cases, their master chef plans it and even prepares and cooks some of the dishes days ahead, if needed. Since the banquet meal is planned days ahead, it often will have dishes that are impossible incluclsions in an everyday menu listing. Most importantly, a Chinese restaurant’s reputation is often based on what kind of banquets they put forward. They carefully plan and organize banquets so that every entree has a different flavor, and the combination of dishes makes for a well-balanced feast. For those who enjoy such meals but diet limitations need attention when watching caloric and/or cholesterol intake, most restaurants will accommodate by substituting a few vegetarian dishes in the banquet menu and carefully monitoring the oil used in cooking.

Banquets are generally served on round tables and there can be as many as ten or twelve seated at a table. In this manner, everyone is at equal distance from the center of the table and the food.

There are two types of banquets, the 'hoe' style (ho tsai) and the formal style(jiu shi). Banquet menus in China can be very elaborate, but for those who reside in the United States, for practical reasons, we have found that the following guide to be more than adequate.

Let us look at a home style banquet. It starts with hors d’oeuvres, often a combination of four or up to six cold dishes. This combination is generally arranged and presented in an attractive array of colors: green, pink, white, tan, and brown. Pink could be Cantonese Roast Pork or Steamed Ham; white might be Drunken Chicken or White Cut Chicken; tan could be Jelly Fish marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil; brown might be Braised and Smoked Carp; a few sprigs of Chinese parsley (cilantro) as garnish gives a tough of green. I can give many more examples, but for now, leave you with the aforementioned few. These dishes are served cold and go well with a wine of your choice.

Incidentally, it is not considered good manners at a banquet to take more than your own share, such action might deprive another guest of his or her share. After all have had their turn and the host urges you to have more, then you may properly accept a second helping. Also, at these banquets, there generally is more than enough food to go around. With that in mind, it is wise to start slowly and make adjustments on how much to eat as the meal progresses. If the menu is available before the banquet begins, then one can pace oneself and follow the courses as they are served. That helps you recognize the dishes as they come and enjoy your meal more.

When we come to the entrees, and they are selected from a variety of protein foods such as pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, lobster, scallops, abalone, beche de mer (sea cucumber), sharks fin, birds nest, or fish. These can be alternated with a vegetarian dish or two to give change of pace from the richness of other dishes. The meat dishes are, in most cases, served with vegetables in the best combinations to enhance their taste and add flavor, color, and texture to the dish. Fish is always served last because Chinese are prudent people and believe that among plenty, one should never forget the lean years and hard times of the past, or those in the possible future. In Chinese, fish and surplus are homonyms, they sound the same but are different written characters with different meanings. Serving fish last means: May your table be forever bountiful.

To plan a meal of nine or ten entrees is not a simple task. Each dish must be artistically arranged to appeal to the eye and stand out with character of their own. This means that their sauces must have some unique features. The dishes that require longer cooking may be prepared first. These dishes might be a soup, something barbecued or braised, or sometimes some steamed meats. Chinese consider chicken, pork, shrimp, and most fish to be delicate and elegant, and not strong flavored proteins. They can be combined with most vegetables in dishes to enhance their appeal. Beef, lamb, and venison, however, are considered strong-flavored proteins and best combined with strong-flavored vegetables such as mustard greens, broccoli, onions, or chives.

Once a dish has been decided upon, then the ingredients are selected and often cut into uniform sizes pieces so that each morsel can be penetrated equally by the flavoring sauces. To make sure that each ingredient is at the peak of its flavor, they are added appropriately during the cooking process in proper sequence.

More delicate dishes are served first so that one can savor their subtle and dainty flavors. Then come sweet and sour entrees and the ones prepared with stronger sauces such as soy bean paste, black bean sauce, etc. In China, the soup is served in the middle of the meal or at its end. In America, it is most frequently served first or after hors d’oeuvres. Peppery hot dishes come toward the end of the meal with the fish as the finale. In this manner, one can really enjoy a meal of great variety and one with a wide range of flavor, color, and texture.

For reader interest, I am listing a home style simple banquet and a formal banquet. A home style meal at today’s prices in New Jersey would cost about two hundred dollars per table. The formal banquet would be twice that price; both would have enough food for ten to twelve people.

The home style banquet menu might include:
1. Cold Dish Combination (Hors d’oeuvres)
a. Sliced Roast Pork (Cha Shu)
b. Drunken Chicken
c. Jelly Fish Salad
d. Braised Beef Tendons
2. Hot and Sour Seafood Soup
3. Pepper Salt Pork Chops
4. Cantonese Fried Chicken
5. Sauteed Mixed Seafood
6. Blanched Chinese Broccoli in Oyster Sauce
7. Tomato Sauce Shrimp
8. Eight Precious Duck
9. Soybean Paste Sea Bass
10. Yangzhou Fried Rice
11. Sweet Tapioca and Red Bean Soup

For those interested in a more elaborate formal banquet menu, the following suggestion is thanks to the chefs at Hunan Taste Restaurant in Denville, New Jersey:
1. Ten Assortment Hors d’oeuvres
2. Twin Sauteed Dishes
a. Shrimp with Pignoli (pine nuts)
b. Fragrant Bean Curd with Shredded Pork Loin
3. Abalone and Chicken Breast Soup
4. Shark Fins Sauteed with Seafood
5. Braised Beche de Mer (sea cucumbers)
6. Lobster in Ginger and Garlic Sauce
7. Jaded Phoenix Chicken
8. Oyster Sauce Filet Mignon
9. Emperor Grape Balls Fish
10. Green Shanghai Cabbage Hearts with Black Mushrooms
11. Yee Fu Noodles with Shredded Shrimp, Pork, and Chicken
12. House Fried Rice
13. Fresh Fruit Assortment

For a recipe from the above, look for the Drunken Chicken in an earlier issue of Flavor and Fortune in Volume 2(1) on page 16. The Tomato Sauce Shrimp recipe follows. For others, consult the Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking by Wonona Chang, the Kutschers, and myself and other excellent Chinese cookbooks. Should you have trouble finding a particular recipe, ask us for help.
Tomato Sauce Shrimp
1 pound large shrimp
1/2 egg white
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons sherry
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
8 slices fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 scallions, cut into one inch pieces
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
3 Tablespoons catsup
2 Tablespoons water
1. Marinate the shrimp with the egg white, sherry, and cornstarch. Mix well until all the shrimp are well coated.
2. Mix sugar, soy sauce, catsup and water in a bowl and set aside.
3. Put oil in a non-stick frying pan or wok and heat until the oil is hot. Add ginger and garlic and stir-fry a few seconds.
4. Add shrimp mixture and stir-fry for one minute, then add the catsup mixture and simmer for two minutes. Now serve.

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