Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Banquets in China
If you thought that the food in China tastes like what we get at a Chinese restaurant in the US or Europe… think again.
Most of what we get in the US is based on the cooking methods and recipes of Guangdong (Canton) province, with a number of additional dishes based on recipes from Hunan and Sichuan – both these regional cuisines are imports of the late 20th century. That is because the early Chinese influx came from Guangdong, when labor to build the US railroads was brought in from that region, and the workers brought with them their regional food preferences and ways of cooking.
However, China is a huge country and regional preferences vary between the different locales. For example: in Northern China soups are served at the beginning of the meal -- if you are in Beijing, for example, the soup would be the first or second dish served, always before appetizers and main courses. If you are in Henan, the province in the center of China that I visited, your soup will be served between the cold appetizers and the hot appetizers and hot main courses. In the south, the soup will be served at the end of the meal so that the host will be reassured that none of his guests was still hungry by the meal’s end.
At my recent trip to participate at the International Mayor's Forum on Tourism in Zhengzhou, because we were a large number of foreign guests, about 500 from 15 countries, we were served food in large banquet halls at regional hotels that mostly cater to foreign travelers. We were seated at large 10 person round tables with a glass lazy susan set at the center. When we arrived at the dining room, the cold appetizers were already set on the susans, about 6 to 9 different dishes. Once the appetizers were finished, the platters were removed and soups – 1 or 2 different soups – were brought in and served. Finally the soup tureens were removed and hot dishes, appetizers and main courses were set on the lazy susan, 9 to 12 courses. In many cases, the final hot dish was fried rice or steamed cereal. After that, desserts and fresh fruits were also offered.
On every table there were printed menus describing the dishes we were getting; 5 or 6 bilingual (English/Chinese) menus. Some of the dishes looked familiar; for example Roast Duck, or Steamed Scallops with Vermicelli, or Wild Yellow River Carp. Others needed translating and some we did not realize what they were until we saw them on the lazy susan. For example one of the main courses was described as “lamb cages”, it actually turned out to be a delicious rack of lamb grilled over aromatic wood! Excellent!
“Crispy dim-sum” was pan fried pork dumplings; the “fried small fish” would have been very familiar to the Greek delegates as well as the ones from Southern Italy and the French delegate from Marseille I was talking to; it was actually fried baitfish – a very popular dish on the Mediterranean shores. Some of the dishes were unfamiliar but understandable, for example “Glutinous Rice Stuffed with Lotus Roots”; a few defied translation - I still can't figure out what “Plain Halogen” was!
All of us enjoyed the meals very much and some loved the Chinese rice wine and beer served for the numerous toasts. Where the beer is concerned, it was a light, slightly bitter lager, very similar to a Belgian brew. The beverages during most of the meals were fruit juices or mineral water. I guess hot tea is something only served in American-Chinese restaurants, because in none of the meals was any hot tea offered.
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