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I’ve just landed in Qingdao in Shandong province after an early-morning flight from Hong Kong, and I’m far from fresh. “You will need to dress more beautifully,” says Joy, a Chinese official who will graciously introduce me to the Chinese banquet experience over the next week.

Normally held on special occasions, such as weddings and festivals, the banquet is much more than a feast. It consists of foods that are typically more expensive than everyday items, focusing on one of the country’s four high cuisines: Shandong, Cantonese, Szechuan, Huaiyang. Shandong food is very salty, with an emphasis on soups and fresh seafood (no bibs necessary).

Manners are central to China’s banqueting tradition, I’m told. But preventing etiquette faux pas is what Joy is here for – her first lesson, dress better, duly noted.

At my first banquet in Weifang, I take a seat at the big round table in our restaurant’s private room and pick up my chopsticks, trying to remember relevant protocol. I know not to turn over a whole fish because, according to superstition, it portends the capsizing of a nearby boat.

A waitress in traditional costume fills our table with braised pig kidneys, pickled lotus, steamed and smoked fishes, dense Chinese bread, pickles of all kinds and sautéed celery. Sea cucumber soup (complete with a small, spiny creature that stares up at me through clear broth) is served at almost every meal and is considered a particularly auspicious offering.

Midway through the feast, a delicious-looking dish arrives. I ask Joy to spin the Lazy Susan my way. She squints at the dish and calls over the waitress; the plate is swiftly removed. Puzzled, I ask Joy for an explanation. “Oh, you wouldn’t like that,” she explains. “It’s a local beef. Very tough! Not very tasty.” I stare hard at her and she folds. “Okay,” she says. “It’s dog meat. But not house dog, meat dog!” Yet another lesson: Be prepared for cultural culinary relativity when eating in China.

We move on. At each meal, guests deliver a series of toasts. The end of each toast is met with a request to drain our glasses – “gan bei” (bottoms up) – and I’m happy to oblige.

Over the next week, as I eat and drink my way through Shandong province, I learn that the right way to spin a Lazy Susan is clockwise, that I should exchange business cards with everyone I meet and that cigarettes are a popular gift. In Qingdao, I sample beer from China’s most popular brewer, Tsingtao. In Qufu, I eat with descendants of Confucius. In Tai’an, I stumble across an elaborate wedding where the bride is outfitted in red silk and men in dragon costumes dance for her amusement.

I eat sweet and sour pork, Peking duck, cabbage salads, cured beef, whole cloves of garlic, sea urchin, steamed abalone and noodles that supposedly confer a long life. One night, after a lot of Confucian liquor – not unlike 80-proof plum juice – I make a toast of my own, finally feeling like I’m getting the hang of this.

I even try Chinese wine – and it isn’t bad. At the final banquet, Joy holds up a glass of red, turns to me and asks, “Guess how much this wine costs?” I shrug. “Two hundred dollars!” she exclaims. “This bottle of wine is $200?” I ask incredulously. Joy shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Not this bottle. But a very good bottle is $200.” Like so many things, her comment didn’t make sense to me. But then I drank to that too.

Try it yourself: Many bigger restaurants in China have banquet rooms. They typically accommodate larger parties, so gather a group of friends, family, colleagues or like-minded travellers, and ask your hotel to reserve a banquet table ahead of time.

Tags

CHINA     CHINESE BANQUET     FOOD & DRINK     FOODIE DESTINATION     ONAIR     SEAFOOD     WEB EXCLUSIVES    

Getting There

Air Canada offers the most non-stop flights, with 5 flights each day in July 2013, from Canada to China.

Comments… or add another

Faye

Monday, July 8th 2013 17:40
Really, that's all you learned about protocol at a Chinese banquet after a week? I learned more at my first banquet, including how guests are seated according to their status/relationship to the host. Disappointing article overall.

Trish

Tuesday, July 9th 2013 10:03
To Faye: Well, why don't you write about your experiences? No need to criticize what someone else wrote, which I found very interesting and well-written.
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