24 February 2014

The Chinese banquet cheat sheet

Your company has reached a milestone or just signed a significant partnership, and you'd like to celebrate. In Singapore, this is often done by inviting staff or partners to a formal Chinese banquet. 

Banquets are typically six- to eight-course affairs though it's possible to have 12 courses or more, so long as it is a number typically ending in two, six, eight or nine. A six-course meal signifies happiness; an eight-course meal, prosperity; nine courses are symbolic of sufficiency, and 12 of ease in everything.

First, choose your restaurant. The more reputable the restaurant, the more honoured the guests. For privacy's sake, ask if you may have a private room. The restaurants typically allow it if the company is willing to spend a minimum sum on the food and drink.

Always ensure that there are balanced numbers of people at each table; if there are 14 coming for lunch for example, seat seven at each table rather than squeezing 10 at one table and only 4 at the other. Seating arrangements can offend if done haphazardly; people of equivalent seniority should be seated at the same table.  

Next, settle on a menu. Most Chinese restaurants have designed several set menus for 10-12 people, the typical number to sit down at a traditional round table. These can always be customised to take guests' preferences into account. Remember that some menus have to be ordered in advance as it may take more time to prepare certain dishes. If there are slightly over 10 coming, it is best to order extra food rather than stretch the single set menu. Everyone should have more than enough food to symbolise abundance for the future; too little would signify insufficiency.

The menu chosen should also reflect the occasion, with the dishes more similar to those for a wedding if it is a partnership, for example. Menus which are on the low end may signal that the company is tight-fisted, while taking on the most lavish package may be considered spend-thrift. A copy of the menu is typically left at the table so guests can tell the approximate value of their meal.
The typical Chinese banquet begins in Singapore with a "cold" dish, typically chilled meats and seafood together with a salad of some kind. The second course is often a soup. Traditionally, this was shark's fin soup but the dish is increasingly going out of fashion, so check with guests on their preferences. 

Slice of abalone on left and slice of sea cucumber on right over a bed of spinach.
The next three to four dishes will focus on one type of meat: poultry, a whole fish, and prawns are common. There may be another seafood dish such as abalone or scallops, or a vegetable dish instead - asparagus or broccoli are often seen. The Chinese names for fish and abalone sound like the word for 'abundance', and so are popular additions to the menu.

Fried noodles.
The carbohydrate dish heralds the end of the meal, and is often a fried rice or stir-fried noodles. The dish is The noodles served at banquets have relatively long strands, representing longevity of the guest of honour, or of a relationship.

A traditional Chinese dessert comes next; this is sometimes the seventh dish as an 'extra' to a six-course banquet, the eighth dish, or the ninth. Whichever part of the course it is, ending the meal with something sweet symbolises the wish for a sweet future. Common desserts are yam (taro) paste with gingko nuts, mango sago, or red bean soup. Where there are multiple desserts, the next dessert may be a red bean pastry or steamed buns with custard or another sweet filling. Fresh fruit will be last.

Etiquette varies a little depending on the restaurant. Some dedicate a waiter or waitress to each table to serve the food individually, while others will divide everything into portions if requested. In some cases, some dishes are portioned out, such as the rice or noodle dish or the soup, whereas others are not. 

Some restaurants will expect the guests to help themselves with communal serving spoons, or individual serving spoons at their place settings. If so, the host invites everyone to start and gets things rolling by serving those on either side of him or her. A lazy susan usually makes it easy to reach all the food. If someone needs help separating food from the main dish, the use the individual or communal serving spoon, or the ends of the chopsticks to offer assistance.

Toasts are common throughout a business meal. The host may propose one to all other guests, or to specific guests of honour. He or she may also go over to other tables to offer toasts as well. Such toasts are reciprocated. Always make sure teacups and glasses are filled throughout the meal for this purpose.

Good manners does dictate that a guest tries a bit of everything served at the banquet, but people are often understanding if guests have trouble by the time the rice or noodles are served, and it is common to see people refusing a portion of this course, and eating progressively less as the meal continues. Guests should always leave a little food behind on their plate to signify that the host has been generous. 

It is common practice for guests to take their leave of the host fairly quickly after the meal ends. If there are gifts for the guests, they are proffered during this time. 

Singapore Brides has a list of what the ingredients chosen for wedding banquet dishes symbolise here.