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Banquets Are Bountiful

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(1) page(s): 28 - 30

Some refer to honorific or special meals as feasts; others mean birthday, festival, wedding, or funeral meals; still others simply call them banquets. No matter name or numbers on the bill, these high economic meals are popular when families and friends or when business associates have an occasion to celebrate. They use a special meal to mark the occasion. It can be a life cycle event, another occasion, or a bunch of business folk handling affairs at a special meal or smoothing the way to finalize a future deal. If the latter, it is done near the meal's end and no sooner. The Chinese prefer a small amount of food to finish off such a deal at a meal.

Should you be invited to such an affair, keep in mind that the Chinese believe you have an obligation to reciprocate. One can determine the dollar value as rich folk arrange for more dishes with many of them featuring expensive and/or rare ingredients. This is surely true for the more important business deals to be decided or honored, for more important the family occasions, too.

Less affluent people have fewer courses, but are just as pleased to offer the best they can afford. At any such meal, guests are encouraged to eat more, and hosts to tell them "have more of these meager items at this poor meal" or words to that effect.

During the Shang Dynasty in the 16th to 11th centuries BCE, the Chinese official Yi Yin, said that at an auspicious affair or an ordinary meal people need to harmonize their foods. Good banquets have already harmonized them. Yi Yin also recommended eating small amounts of the dishes served. He indicated that at all meals and banquets, people needed to serve and eat some foods that are sweet, sour, piquant, bitter, and salty. These, he said, were to meet the needs of the five organs, namely the heart, liver, spleen, lungs, and the kidneys. Furthermore, he recommended people need to serve and therefore eat, dishes at all meals with five colors, red, green, white, yellow, and black or brown.

The first time Imperial banquets were held outside of Beijing when the emperor and many in his court officials were touring. During the Qing and earlier Dynasties, they were visiting Southern China. The meals served then and others at the palace did feature exotica, however, one does not read how many dishes they served. At the palace in early Qing times, it was customary to prepare more than three hundred different dishes, some to be nibbled on, others just to look at, still others to enjoy. At these and most royal banquets there was music, dancing, gambling, erotic pastimes, and eating one's fill.

Typical ordinary banquets these days have nothing in excess. Most often they start with a cold platter with five or more appetizers, the items on this platter can be in even numbers, more likely odd ones. Next will be six or eight main courses, a mixture of steamed, stir-fried, stewed, deep-fried, and pan-fried dishes. After them will be a fancy final course followed by a sweet one. Fruit, tea, and small bakery items used to intersperse courses, nowadays, they are things of the past. In the far distant past, these occasions were called 'wine spreads' or jiu xi. They were different from family or ordinary meals. One way to distinguish them was and still is that main courses at banquets came on large platters and one by one. Another difference, the most expensive courses come first, a decorated meat dish after them, then other main dishes follow, a whole steamed fish is usually the last main course. This order still prevails.

Dishes at these special meals include those with expensive ingredients and dishes that require lots of time and talent in the kitchen. They include lots of seafoods and rare foods, and specially seasoned foods showing off complex preparations that take hours to make.

At banquets or special events, the host selects the wine or wines, sees to it that glasses are filled at the start of each main course, he or she makes the first toast to begin the repast, and often serves the soup course. Banquets used to be in gorgeous venues, many rented for that meal. Nowadays, most are in restaurants with a staff member doing these honors. Traditionalists prefer all honors going go the host, the wait staff just bringing the food to the table. While the host used to and often still does dish out the first serving of the first dish, sometimes the host serves each and every dish. After he/she does, guests can help themselves to things remaining on the serving dishes before they are cleared away before the next course comes.

Correctness means partaking with chopsticks, picking up a special item, and serving it to the eldest or the most honored guest at the table, preferably one near you. Reaching across the table is considered rude. Then, one serves others in reduced order of seniority, or honored position. One never should serve oneself any food or beverage.

Banquet halls were reserved for special occasions. They had lovely lanterns resplendent in red and gold, their dishes served on gold-plated dinnerware with ivory chopsticks; and staff wearing traditional Chinese robes. These meals began on the dot of the appointed hour, a clash of cymbals or a gong announcing the start of the meal. This was immediately followed by the host making the first toast. Rare was the person making a grand entrance or arriving late.

The Chinese never fail to invent or have a real reason to arrange such a fine meal. It could be Lunar New Year beginning with large fancy oysters, or another occasion during the year. Banquets then and now serve mostly seafood and fish, the latter word in Chinese sounds like surplus, so the host is wishing lots of extras for his/her guests in the future. Some reasons to celebrate at banquets are an individual's birthday, sixty is a prime cause to honor someone who had lived an entire cycle of five twelve-years. Every twelve years after that are other popular banquet times to honor individuals.

Banquets can be on the seventh day of the New Year, a day called the 'Birthday for all' day They can be at the beginning of spring, the sampling of new tea, the first of a special vegetable that year, celebrating Dragon Boat festival, a wedding, a baby's one-month birthday, or any other occasion the host deems worth honoring. Ancient history details very few royal events. One can find numbers of feasts, even vegetarian ones, prepared for Taoists or Buddhist clergy that center on foods for health. Taoist honorific meals had eleven courses beginning with pickled items such as jellyfish to stimulate digestive juices. They always had gluten, vegetable, and/or tofu dishes to neutralize and calm the guests, yang foods including meats to stimulate and energize, tonic soups with herbs to build vitality, neutral foods such as fish and vegetables, mushroom dishes to cleanse, rice and noodle dishes to fill up the diners, and fruits to cool and cleanse their systems. Throughout these banquets, different teas were served to calm eaters of such elaborate meals.

Banquets for royals were long affairs. One example is that dukes were treated to three morning meals and three evening feasts, but the foods they ate are rarely mentioned. More than likely, royal staff would record how much flour and other fine foods were needed to make these meals, then historians did their own math to guess what they might have consumed.

The above morning meals were for show, wine glasses full but never consumed. Evening repasts were different. They had wine to be enjoyed. Participants were encouraged to drink "until wine-rapped." At these special meals, the emperor or a lesser host sent moon cakes and other pastries to the ill, the elderly, and those who could not attend.

The earliest details of an imperial feast is found in the Ming Hui Dian or Ming Dynasty Records volume. During this dynasty, these special meals were called Da Qing Hui Dian Shi Lu. Two types of royal feasts were mentioned, one a Manchu banquet, the other a Han banquet. At a first-class Man banquet thirty-four different meat and fruit dishes were served. At a second-class banquet just thirty-one; and at a third-class banquet only twenty-six different main dishes were served. What all the dishes were remains a mystery.

In the Hua Fang Lu, there is a written record of an early Qing Dynasty meal in the Yangzhou area. This first mention of a Man-Han banquet details many unusual foods including swallow's nest, fish bladder dumplings, bear's paw with carp tongues, gorilla lips, mock leopard placenta with camel hump, civet cat and deer's tail; how they were prepared is not clear.

Man-Han banquets were lavish feasts featuring lots of eating and drinking. Some of these Qing Dynasty events were recorded in books such as Notes Made in Gaily-painted Treasure Boats written by I Dou in 1764. These banquets were often divided into six separate feasts, and held over three days. One had three hundred twenty courses in total, one hundred ninety-six cold and hot dishes, the remainder delicate pastries.

One, called 'The Feast in Honor of Court Ministers,' began with Dragon Well Tea for welcome, four courses of nuts, four of candied fruits, four of pastries, and four of pickles. These were courses, not individual dishes, and they were followed by seven hors d'oeuvres, a Bird's Nest Soup, five fantastic meat and fish courses, two pastry courses, five more phenomenal main dishes, two more pastries, three more main courses, two barbecue courses, one porridge course to fill any leftover cracks, a plate of seasonal fruits, and a farewell course of tea.

This particular Man-Han Banquet or a related event was held every year on the 16th of the first month of the Lunar calendar. Usually held in the Hall of Selflessness, hosts and guests enjoyed composing poems and eating and drinking. This was their reward for faithful service to the Emperor. At this and at other banquets, the Chinese adore meat in excess, and lots of expensive seafood.

Special meals were not confined to those given by the emperor or someone in the royal family. Linda Koo, in her 1973 book, says that "a man of wealth may sponsor a feast with a dozen main courses for ten twice a week." She advises that those who attend have the obligation to reciprocate, must arrive early or on time, take as much as they like from the service plates but never take anything they will not eat at that moment.

Many ask why is a whole fish or shark's fin so important and popular at banquets? One reason, fish called yu, is a homonym for 'abundance' and the Chinese wish their guests lots of it. Shark's fins means 'happiness for all,' another important wish for one's guests. Less popular now because shark populations are depleted, some Chinese wish to show respect for the environment and do not serve these rapidly depleting honorific foods.

Families in Hong Kong and other major Chinese cities rarely cook a festive meal. They used to hire folks to make a banquet at home, but rare is the person who has place for many guests, so most go to a restaurant to celebrate. They invite their best friends or best business associates, and communicate messages of solidarity as they show-off and share opulence with guests in fancy restaurants. A modern day banquet room in one restaurant is shown on this page. And, should you wonder about the TV screen, the Chinese like to end these meals with karaoke, and their words will be shown on that screen with a ball bouncing above them to keep everyone singing the right words at the right time.

When you want to celebrate and host an important occasion, go to a good Chinese restaurant several days or weeks in advance and speak with the person in charge of banquets. Discuss kinds of foods, number of guests, money available to indulge in, and other particulars, and be sure to visit the room where your event will be held. Then invite your guests with gold invitations, indicate time, place, where, and when they need respond, and contact the facility several days in advance telling them the exact number expected.

The year I was eighty, My husband, daughter, and a few other relatives arranged such a fine banquet. As I write this, they are planning it. When you read about it, we will have enjoyed a great meal, many courses, and too much food. To do less would be inappropriate. To the Chinese, this is a lovely way to celebrate with friends and family! Do celebrate royally, I surely did!

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