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Dinner with dragons

Updated: 2012-12-25 15:31

Eating dinner, or even lunch, with a group of Chinese people can be quite an experience. Eating is an important cultural ritual in China, and almost every action around the dinner table has a reason behind it.

The first thing you need to know is that you must sit where your host tells you to sit. Seating around a Chinese table is important, as it displays rank and respect. The most important dining guest sits at the seat that faces the door. If you’re so lucky as to be that guest, you won’t have to worry about the Mongolians sneaking up behind you unawares!

Oh and the food (oh! the food!) will just keep on keeping-on coming! All without you ever glancing at the menu (probably) – the Chinese can be pretty hierarchical when it comes to menu handling. That said you’ll definitely get variety.

Chinese meals are eaten off communal dishes that are set in the middle of the table, with chopsticks. You are also presented with a tiny plate, bowl and spoon for resting small bites of food in between mouthfuls.

Each new dish is offered first to the most senior diner – this can also mean the guest of honor. Sometimes this is followed along the ‘chain of command’, but in other circumstances its first in best dressed after the honoree ‘cuts the ribbon’ as it were.

It is perfectly acceptable for you to reach across each other and pass the plates around like some mad food juggler – so don’t worry if the kung pao chicken is a bit beyond your reach. Most likely, your Chinese friends will even put food on your plate. When this happens to you it can go one of two ways:

a) You’re totally psyched because they got you a miraculously delicious morsel and you can’t wait to snap it up in your eager little jaws; or

b) It’s something that’s obviously a part of an animal you wouldn’t normally eat (pigs ear, chickens feet) or something completely unidentifiable as animal, vegetable, or mineral, and in either case, you’re not so keen.

If you’re in category B, your option is to ignore that morsel for the rest of the meal or boldly go where your taste buds have never gone before and chow down. Either is acceptable (but this writer thinks you should suck it up and try the ducks blood soup already, don’t be such a baby!)

The worst thing you can do is make a face and say something like “Ew what is that?!” That is the recourse for children only. Also, “no child ever starved in front of a full plate,” so shut up and eat the locusts, Johnny!

As for etiquette, here are a few simple rules: slurping is fine, but no finger-licking nonsense, eat all your rice, don’t gesture with your chopsticks, and don’t stick them standing up in your bowl of rice (this is an omen of death!) Finally, unless you invited everybody out don’t expect to be allowed to pay the bill. You can put up a fight but usually this has been taken care of surreptitiously by the host on a sneaky trip to the “washroom” so don’t take it to heart. The Chinese just don’t go Dutch.

By CJ Henderson

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