A real Chinese meal is very different from an American or French meal. This is one of the reasons why Chinese cooking has become so popular in the West. Of the many differences, the one we want to highlight here is this: the Chinese meal is a community affair, in the sense that everyone eats out of the same dishes. Incidentally, this is why you usually find round tables in authentic Chinese restaurants. The reason is simple: since everyone eats out of the same dishes it is easier to get at them if they are in the middle of a round table. In Taiwan I noticed that many restaurants have large lazy Susans built right into the table so that the food, place on the lazy Susan, can more easily be moved around so that each person can reach it. Not a bad idea!
We want to clarify six basic principles that govern the ordering and eating of a real Chinese meal. We might refer to the sum of them as the philosophy or theory of ordering in a Chinese restaurant. These principles apply, with some variations, to all kinds or schools of Chinese cooking.
There are six basic principles which, if followed, will enable you to experience the fullness of taste and variety in Chinese cooking. We will now list each of those principles and expand on them briefly.
Order dishes according to the number of persons. This principle applies whether there are two or twenty persons for dinner. Thus, if there are three people eating, the proper way to order the meal would be to order one meat, one fish and one vegetable dish. If you are hungry, a soup may be added to the list.
Do not repeat the same dish (unless you have a large party — usually more than five persons). What this principle advises is that, when you order a Chinese meal for a group, you should not order two dishes in the same category. For example, one would not order two beef dishes or two pork dishes for a party of four. What one should look for is variety — variety of taste and variety of appearance. However, if you have more than five persons at your dinner party and you do not want too many different dishes, then we suggest that you order two portions of a dish or dishes that you like very well.
Everyone shares in each dish. According to this principle, all the dishes are placed in the middle of the table and each person has access to each dish. You may not like one of the dishes. If that is the case then skip it and concentrate on the dishes you like. But do not be too quick to judge that you do not like something. At least give it a try. Some people do not like shrimp, but they have never tasted shrimp the way a Shanghai chef prepares it.
Eating out of the same dish is common in the Orient and also in the Middle East. It is a powerful sign of unity and community. Americans tend to be very individualistic even in their eating. In a steak house each person gets his or her own steak. Chinese community-style eating is something that distinguishes it very markedly from western eating habits. It is a marvelous experience. Instead of each person ordering a ready-made plate, like Number I or Number 2, it is much better to order a variety of dishes from which each one shares. Number 1 and Number 2 were designed because of American eating habits. The combination plate is not Chinese style but American. In our experience the food you get in these combination plates is inferior and tends to be greasy. If you like it, fine. But if you want to try some real Chinese food by following our suggestions, we doubt that you will ever return to Number 1 or Number 2.
Eat rice with each dish. All Chinese dishes are seasoned to be eaten together with rice. The meat, fish and vegetable dishes, if eaten alone, are too spicy or too salty or too strong. Rice cuts the harshness; with they all taste just right. rice Since they are very adroit with the sticks, the Chinese put the rice in a bowl. They pick bite-size portions from the cooked dishes in the center of the table and deftly.
Americans should normally use a plate. Put some rice on the plate and then add a small amount of meat or fish or vegetable from one of the hot dishes. Generally it is stirred in with the rice. Try one main dish with the rice, then another, then another. It is best not to mix them all together because if you do you lose the various delicate tastes of the different foods. If you mix it all together then you are right back to chop Suey again — and that is what we want to get away from!
Many Chinese restaurants, thinking that Americans do not like much rice, serve very small portions. We urge you to ask for more rice. If you ask for a bowl of rice and chopsticks for each person you will get plenty of rice.
Drink Chinese tea with your meal. Chinese tea tastes good by itself. It should not be contaminated with milk and/or sugar. Take it straight. It has no calories. Tea is good for the mouth and good for the stomach because it cuts the grease. It aids digestion and many Chinese say that it is good for the kidneys. It also has a very soothing effect. If you drink tea, you can eat a big Chinese meal and afterwards feel no discomfort.
Most Chinese restaurants serve oolong or red tea with the meal. Chinese green tea, served in some restaurants, is much lighter and is often taken in the morning or during the day with some pastry. Some teas are scented with flowers, such as jasmine or chrysanthemum. These teas go well with pastry taken after the meal.
Dessert is optional. Most Chinese restaurants in this country have ice cream and fortune cookies. Some also offer fresh or canned fruit. If you have room for something sweet after your meal, then go ahead and order it. But it is not essential to the Chinese meal. If you want to linger and converse after a tasty meal, it is recommended to drink some more tea and perhaps nibble on a fortune cookie or an almond cookie. Fortune cookies are really more for fun and conversation than they are for dessert.
We can sum up these six principles in one mnemonic sentence: Number and variety share rice with tea. Remember that and you will remember how to order a real Chinese meal — in case you forget to bring this booklet along with you.
Here are those principles again — for quick reference:
- Order dishes according to the number of persons.
- Do not repeat the same dish (unless you have a large party).
- Everyone shares in each dish.
- Eat rice with each dish.
- Drink Chinese tea with your meal.
- Dessert is optional.
It all adds up to: number and variety share rice with tea.