Wednesday, 19 January 2011

guess who’s coming to dinner

It’s traditional for Chinese families to get together on New Year’s Eve, which this year falls on the second of February, for a dinner, sometimes at home but more often in one of the many big restaurants around town. Needless to say, trying to book a table at this time of year is very difficult, which is why our family dinner will be tomorrow night.

Hong Kong’s restaurants are a bellwether for the territory’s economy, and if the restaurant we’re going to is half empty, then the outlook is not promising. Note that I’m talking about midweek restaurant patronage; if restaurants are also half empty at weekends, then it’s time to start stocking non-perishable foodstuffs at home, because the suicides will be raining down from the upper floors of Hong Kong’s financial district, and the economic weather report will be uglier than a black rainstorm warning from the Hong Kong Observatory.

I’ve no idea what the menu will be, but with a few possible exceptions—goose webs and sea slugs spring to mind—I’m sure I’ll like it. I’m used to multi-course dinners nowadays, and it puzzles me why in the Anglo-Saxon world in a similar situation each diner would select their own individual dish, even in a Chinese restaurant, where one person might order sweet and sour pork, another beef in black bean sauce and a third fried noodles. Surely it’s more fun to share, and the upside is that you get to try several dishes. Of course, you may not agree if your chopstick technique isn’t up to scratch.

At the first such twelve-to-a-table dinner I attended, in 1974, I instinctively left the last piece of food on a dish because it seemed impolite to be the one to take it, but as with the spilling of tea on the tablecloth, I soon noticed that no one else had any misgivings about that last piece. Chinese table etiquette, I realized, is quite different to that in my home country.

And if that isn’t something to look forward to, Paula and I will be attending a wedding banquet on Sunday. Although I’ve spent most of the last 37 years in Hong Kong, this will be only the eighth I’ve been to. However, it will be the fifth in the past three years, so naturally I’m hoping that this sudden increase in frequency can be sustained.

Who wouldn’t be hopeful? All the dishes on the menu will be expensive and thus not part of my normal diet. In fact, I can predict almost all the dishes that will be served, because there is remarkably little variation. The first course is certain to be roast whole suckling pig, one of my favourites. The fifth course will be shark’s fin soup.

I’m very ambivalent about the soup. I know that I should refuse my bowl on environmental grounds, but it would be an empty gesture, because it would have no effect on the barbaric practice of ‘harvesting’ sharks’ fins and throwing the unwanted parts of the fish overboard. It is the responsibility of the bridegroom’s family to request that it not be on the menu, but they have a dilemma: were it not on the menu, it would be a signal to those attending that they need not put quite so much money in the red packets traditionally given to the newlyweds on such an occasion.

The seventh course will be steamed garoupa. This may be the only dish on the menu that I will eat on other occasions, mainly because it’s possible to order a small fish, unlike the monsters that will fill the platters at a banquet. I must put in a word for this method of cooking fish. Most fish have very delicate flavours, so I don’t see any point in cooking one in a spicy sauce, which will overpower the principal ingredient. This fish will have been steamed with nothing more than spring onions and shredded ginger.

The eighth course will be deep-fried crispy chicken, another of my favourites. There is scope for variation in courses two, three, four and six. The second is likely to be some variant of stir-fried prawns, while the sixth will probably be abalone, the world’s most expensive shellfish. The third course is an interesting one: it will be an indicator of how extravagant the bridegroom’s family has been. The cheaper option is stir-fried fresh scallops with broccoli, but we are far more likely to be served a marrow ring containing a whole dried scallop. These are widely available in dried goods stores throughout Hong Kong and are seriously expensive. The largest ones will set you back the equivalent of £60 per pound, six times the cost of the fresh version and ten times the cost of broken bits, which are ideal for making soup, the only thing that dried scallops are good for.

After the main courses, there will be a dish of rice and a dish of noodles, which are there as ‘fillers’. At a wedding banquet, not much of either is eaten. Then comes a hot, sweet soup, which will probably be made from red beans, green beans or sesame seeds, followed by some kind of cake or biscuit and, finally, a fruit platter, which may include tangerines (the symbol of prosperity) but is more likely to be something non-sticky, like watermelon.

Although the food is the principal attraction, there are any number of interesting sideshows, which vary from wedding to wedding. Some are embarrassing, like the practice of getting the bridegroom to carry his wife around the room as fast as he can, presumably for the amusement of the guests, who shout encouragement. The roles will then be reversed and the whole spectacle repeated.

One invariant is the mah jong: many guests will have been at the restaurant since early afternoon, and the restaurant will have enough sets of tiles, tables and lights for several dozen games to take place simultaneously. Annoyingly, when it comes to chow time, you can be sure that several tables will continue to play beyond the scheduled time. I now consider it safe to assume that the banquet will never start on time.

In any case, it is considered appropriate to arrive at least an hour before that, so there is the problem of finding something to occupy my attention in the interim. I’m probably hungry, because wedding banquets are always scheduled to start a good two hours later than the usual Chinese dinner time, which is earlier than it would be for most Westerners. Consequently, my second move is always to check out what food is available to keep hungry guests from fainting in public.

If I’m lucky, there will be some savoury Chinese pastries; if I’m not, the only thing to eat will be an assortment of fancy Chinese cakes. To say that I don’t like the kind of cakes offered in a Chinese cake shop, which these would be, is a gross understatement. And if you’re wondering what kind of cakes I’m describing, then imagine throwing one at a wall. It would probably splatter, and most of it would stick. Just what you need before tucking into eight consecutive savoury courses. And if you wondered what my first move is: I grab a beer, if there’s any available (not always the case).

Another part of the pre-banquet ritual is the bridal photographs. Paula and I are usually guests via some work connection, so we have no role to play in this part of the proceedings, but at a recent family wedding we all took our turns at being photographed with the bride and groom. The printed photos were delivered to our tables before the end of the meal, but the memory that I took away from this banquet is of my father-in-law, resplendent in a neat blue suit, shiny new tie, and trainers.

By this time, all the guests will be seated, but there is one more penance to suffer before they bring on the food: a cringingly awful audiovisual compilation of how the happy couple’s love blossomed. At least, by way of compensation, they will have started serving the red wine by this time, and it won’t take the nearest foki with a bottle long to notice that this gweilo tends to drink quite a lot faster than anyone else within his area of responsibility. I always do when it’s free. I’ve never been known to pass up on free drink. The only problem is that when someone is constantly recharging your glass, it’s hard to know how much you’ve drunk. The only thing I can say is not enough to make me forget to pick up one of the printed menus as a souvenir (when you have a few, they make interesting comparative reading).

At this point, you will have to excuse me. I need to practise my signature, which I hardly ever use. The first character, ‘Hon’, has eighteen strokes, which are easy enough to remember, but it’s only a surname, so signing my name is the only time I write it. And it’s important to write it with panache, which in this context means fast, so I need to practise it a couple of times to make sure I don’t betray any momentary hesitation because I can’t remember which stroke comes next in the sequence.

The connection of my Chinese signature to a wedding banquet should really have been explained at the beginning of this report, because it refers to the first thing you see upon entering the banqueting area: two young ladies seated behind a large table. On the table is an ornamental silk tablecloth on which guests are signing their names. The marker pens they give you are not the best tools for writing Chinese, but my efforts never fail to elicit squeals of surprise. Some people are easily impressed.


  1. I really like the last tradition you mentioned - writing on a silk tablecloth. That seems like a much more beautiful keepsake than a simple guestbook.

    As always, I absolutely enjoyed your post. :)

  2. I've never enjoyed the family style meals. Not because of the interaction but because I've never been high enough on the decision making tree (it was always someone else's event or party) to actually weigh in on the dishes. Maybe I'm a picky eater or maybe it's just cause I grew up an only child.

    Also, I too like the idea of the table cloth. I can't imagine being that excited to flip through a boring book of signature 20 years after the wedding. Whereas the tablecloth would be much cooler.



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