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My Worst Chinese Banquet Meal

by Leonard Newman

Personal Perspectives

Summer Volume: 2009 Issue: 16(2) page(s): 31, 35, and 36

If you have read this far, you must be wondering why anyone would want to write about their worst Chinese meal. Actually, I thought it could be instructive if I examined for readers, how a Chinese banquet went bad. Be assured, I do know good Chinese food. I am married to the editor of this magazine for more than fifty-five years. We traveled to China many times, have eaten superb Chinese food there innumerable times, also had fantastic Chinese banquets there. We have also enjoyed, in the United States, and throughout the world, many outstanding Chinese meals. In addition, having accompanied my wife to many banquet and restaurant meals reviewed over the past sixteen years for this magazine, and probably hundreds of others for fun and food, and eaten in the homes of many fine Chinese cooks, professional and personal, I assert my credentials include knowing good and bad Chinese everyday and banquet food.

Most folk believe all banquets are great, and they often are. The operant word is 'often' and not 'always.' The occasion of this 'worst' banquet meal was in conjunction with a scientific meeting I attended in California's great city of San Francisco. It was at a restaurant called the Empress of China; 838 Grant Avenue; San Francisco; phone: (415) 434-1345. Located in the heart of this city's Chinatown, some two hundred seventy folk and my wife and I attended this banquet, each of them seated at a table set for ten. We attendees paid forty dollars for what a conference organizer later advised was a set meal from their banquet selection offerings.

From all indications, this restaurant is geared to provide meals for large groups, as ours was. There are two large halls that can accommodate them and they are on the fifth and sixth floors. The banquet herein discussed used almost all the space on the fifth floor, its entertainment used the stage at one end, and cash bar beverages were at the other end.

Chinese banquets usually start with a large and elaborately prepared delectable cold meats and other items often including jelly fish. These are on one or more platters set on the table for self-service or set and then served by their staff. Some banquets, in place of cold offerings, might have hot selections or both. Not so this one. It began with a cold dish, yes--just one cold dish; and it was called Empress Chicken. No imperial lady would be honored by this dish's nomenclature nor its ingredients, and surely not its taste. This dish was a mound of shredded lettuce sprinkled with lots of fried wonton skin strips. They were accompanied by very few pieces of steamed chicken. Surely, not an auspicious banquet beginning.

Next came a platter of Pot Stickers, and no serving utensil. With no waiter in sight, we began to serve ourselves, each taking just one of them, noting how few there were. One chap did help himself to two, not noting the limitation. He was quickly chastised by others at the table. Thus, he pushed the second one back, his potential mistake certainly pardonable. No one expected so few pot stickers and no one to evenly distribute them.

As it happened, the pot stickers turned out to be awful, most likely commercial products or reheated pre-cooked ones. That might have been OK, however, by the time our table got ours, they were cold and tasteless. With nine at our table, one pot sticker remained on the platter. We urged our errant colleague to eat it, and he did so reluctantly. One reason these items were cold is probably due to inadequate wait staff. There was not a waiter in sight in the entire room to serve them promptly to us or to anyone. Furthermore, what staff there was, some minutes later, seemed confused and disorganized. As this restaurant is geared to serving large groups and banquets, they should know better and be better prepared.

Next came, the soup which I can only describe as something akin to dishwater enlivened with sizzling rice. One gentleman at my table said he loved it as it had no MSG. When asked how he knew that, he said "because,"and then he changed the subject. Frankly, I doubt this ingredient missing; though anything other than the rice and very few squares of bean curd certainly were absent.

The next dish was Peking Duck. To properly prepare this classic banquet dish, a fresh duck with its neck intact is required. Traditionally, as witnessed in a Hong Food market some years ago, a person blows into a slit made in the neck so the skin separates from the flesh, Nowadays, I am sure a pump is used enabling the duck to blow up like a balloon. That is so when roasted.

With heat evenly applied on both sides of the skin, the fat just under the skin renders easily, and the skin gets very crisp and is most appreciated. To prepare the duck, Peking Duck preparers hang it in a cool windy place for a day or more, periodically brushing it with a sugary maltose marinade. The skin does dry out and it tightens. Then the duck is roasted hanging by its neck, in a special oven, much like an Indian Tandoor (a duck oven and ducks hangining in it are shown on this page). It is there that almost all of its fat drips off.

Preparing the duck doing all these things is most important. Few restaurants have the inclination to go through this laborious procedure or purchase and use the requisite oven, unless they specialize in serving Peking Duck. Beware of a restaurant that offers Peking Duck for immediate consumption, hours of preparation are required.

Invariably these days, a fully prepared duck is provided by a purveyor and kept chilled at the restaurant until ordered. The duck skin becomes limp, so just before serving, it is dropped into hot oil to somewhat crisp its skin. Those who have eaten properly made Peking Duck, immediately know the difference; others are less savvy.

Restaurants proud of their Peking Duck, even if not quite authentic, bring out the whole duck and carve the skin away from the flesh, patrons watching. Cut pieces of skin are readied to go into one of two pancake types. Southern style, the pancake is thin and flat, a scallion used to brush Hoisin sauce on it, then skin, scallion, and sauce are wrapped in the pancake, one served to each diner. In the past, duck meat was not served, rather it was reserved for a stir-fried duck dish served later in the meal. Nowadays, some meat is included with the skin, the second dish never served, the carcass used for stock or enjoyed by the staff. The other way is to serve Peking Duck northern style. This means using a baked soft bun folded or partially cut through. It gets brushing with the same sauce and some skin in inserted in this bun. The bun, sauce, and scallion stuffed with some skin with or without meat, are served to each person at the table; they eat it much like a sandwich.

At this restaurant a platter with oddly shaped skin pieces covering very little meat arrived, as did soft buns, a bowl of Hoisin sauce, and very few scallion slivers. By the time that platter reached me, there were no scallion pieces left; a shame because this member of the onion family offers contrast in texture and taste. Its absence was my least concern, more important was that the skin was not crisp, and it was very greasy. I would not be surprised if this duck was cooked from scratch in that hot oil. Furthermore, the skin was chewy and just plain awful.

Next at this banquet came a dish known locally as Honey Walnut Prawns. Theirs was an OK rendering of this increasingly popular Westernized dish. Truth be told, it is not to my liking as its cooked mayonnaise coats the prawns. I do love mayo, but not when served hot. The walnuts were few and OK-–though they could have been fresher, they had very little honey, almost no sesame seeds, and almost no taste, probably as they were not freshly roasted or even fresh.

For some unexplained reason the next dish to arrive was Yangzhou Fried Rice. At a banquet, fried rice signifies the last or next to last dish. With no steamed fish near a banquet's end, which is both common and looked forward to, I was confused by this order of food presentations. Because we had so few dishes; eight or ten is common nowadays, I was more befuddled than ever, and furthermore, as it is considered an insult to the host to fill up on this rice dish and I was mighty hungry, what to do? Should I go hungry or wolf it down?

As I really was mighty hungry, my idea was to eat lots of this rice dish which arrived made with soy sauce. Yangzhou Fried Rice should not have any of this sauce; as without it is what makes it Yangzhou style. No problem for me eating more than my share; I found it not worth indulging in with its very few bits of meat and vegetable and its rice was all too soft. Amazingly and quickly, came three additional dishes. The first of these was Beef with Vegetables, made with the usual red and green peppers and some onions. These 'vegetables' were stir-fried with big tough squares of beef.

There is no reason to serve tough beef. I imagined it commercial grade or something less than that. To their credit, they did not illegally treat it to soften it by soaking in bicarbonate of soda. This used to be done to tenderize poor grades of meat, however, the US government does forbid that as it inactivates some B vitamins; that was something in their favor.

Put on the table with the beef was Sweet and Sour Pork, an item second in popularity for Westerners at Chinese restaurants to Beef and Broccoli. The sauce with this non-banquet pork dish can be clawing. Foods at banquets are supposed to be rare, exotic, special, expensive, and/or require considerable preparation. This magazine's editor, also at this banquet, refused to even taste this dish. She advised she had no beef because there was not enough to go around and that the peppers were overcooked so it did not entrance her consumption of its calories. After the meal, she whispered to me that the beef dish and the vegetable one that followed had mushy vegetables so she lost her appetite. She claimed it no great loss.

I retorted that my piece of pork was a coated fried ball that I did put into my mouth, carefully avoiding the sauce. As it was so awful, I am ashamed to reveal I spit it onto my plate, trying not to let others observe this bad behavior. As to that vegetable dish, I also revealed to her that one mouthful and I refused another.

Last was a plate of naked fortune cookies, unwrapped and probably parsed out by hand. Against the Health Code in my part of the country where fortune cookies are wrapped before being sent to restaurants. I guess this was a fitting end to my worst Chinese banquet, ever.

In truth, I do think the Empress of China is capable of serving both a good and an appropriate banquet. After all, they have been in business for eons, have the facilities, and continue to serve folks who do frequent the place.

Two years ago, this same group had a banquet in the same room. As I remember, it was more than acceptable. My question: Was it an off night or a just a bad banquet? I believe the restaurant should be ashamed to offer what I believe was a trite banquet meal not worthy of being called a banquet. They should be mortified, as well, to charge such an exorbitant price for such poor food and poor service. For these reasons, I think it appropriate to call it 'My Worst Chinese Meal,' and I should add the word 'Ever' after that!

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