What should You Know about Chinese Meals

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chopsticks_cChinese meals always consist of a soup, a rice, noodle or bread dish a vegetable dish and at least two other dishes which may be mainly meat, fish or chicken. The meal may be preceded and concluded with tea, but during the meal itself soup will be the only beverage. Soup is drunk not as a first course as it is in the West but throughout the meal. The exception to this is a banquet when soup, if it is served at all, comes at the end of the meal or as a palate-cleanser at several points during the dinner.

On such occasions, wine, spirits, beer or even fruit juice will be drunk with the food. At banquets (which are really elaborate dinner parties) dishes are served one at a time so that the individual qualities of each dish can be properly savoured. There may be as many as eight to twelve courses. Rice will not be served except at the end of the meal when fried rice might be offered to anyone who has any appetite left.

At ordinary family meals all the dishes comprising the meal are served together, including the soup. The food is placed in the centre of the table. Each person has his own rice bowl into which he puts a generous amount of steamed rice. Then, using his chopsticks, he helps himself to a little of one dish, transferring this to his rice bowl. Once he has eaten this together with some rice he will have a chopstick-full of another dish. No Chinese would dream of heaping his rice bowl with what he regarded as his full share of any dish before proceeding to eat. Eating is a communal affair and each diner will take care to see that everyone else at the table is receiving a fair share of everything.

Of course you can eat Chinese food any way you like. I think it blends deliriously with many European dishes, and when you are new to Chinese cooking you may find it easier to familiarise yourself with the cuisine by trying out just one or two dishes at a time and incorporating them into a non-Chinese menu. Chinese soups, for example, make excellent starters and stir-fried vegetables are delicious with grills and roasts.

When you do devise an all-Chinese meal, try to see that you have a good mix of textures, flavours, colours and shapes. Apart from a staple dish, such as steamed rice, you should opt for a variety of meat, poultry and fish. It is better to serve one meat and one fish dish rather than two meat dishes, even if the meats are different. It will also be a better-balanced meal (and easier to prepare) if you use a variety of cooking methods. Serve a stir-fried dish with a braised, steamed or cold dish. It's important to try to select one or two things which can be prepared in advance. Avoid doing more than two stir-fried dishes which will make for frantic activity at the last minute.

Table-setting

You don't need any special crockery or cutlery for serving Chinese food, although I think it tastes infinitely better when it is eaten with chopsticks rather than a fork. Knives are definitely unnecessary since Chinese food is always cut into bite-sized pieces before it is served. Each person will need a rice bowl, a soup bowl, a teacup if you are serving tea, and a small plate for any bones or debris. A small dish or saucer each will also be needed if you are having any dipping sauces. Soup or cereal bowls will do for the rice and soup. Chopsticks are usually set to the right of the rice bowl where a knife would normally be put. A spoon, metal or china, will be needed for soup and as an adjunct to chopsticks for noodles.

The Chinese always help themselves (and others) to the food using their own chopsticks. Some people provide separate serving chopsticks but these are usually abandoned in the enthusiasm of eating.

Using chopsticks

Using chopsticks just takes a little practice and the hungrier you are the quicker you learn!

1. Put one chopstick into the crook of your hand between your thumb and first finger, holding the chopstick about two-thirds the way up from the thinner end. Let it rest on your third finger.

2. Put the second chopstick between your thumb and forefinger so that its tip is level with the first chopstick below.

3. Keep the lower chopstick steady and move the top one to pick up food.

chopsticks

When eating rice and other tricky morsels it is perfectly acceptable to lift your rice bowl under your chin and 'shovel' rice into your mouth with your chopsticks. The Chinese do this all the time.

What to drink

If you want to be authentic serve soup with your Chinese meals. If you prefer you could serve tea, preferably Chinese tea which is drunk without milk and sugar. There are three different types of Chinese tea. Green or unfermented tea is made from green leaves which, when infused, result in a pale yellowish tea with a refreshing astringent taste. Black tea is made from fermented black leaves and is red when infused. It has a hearty, robust flavour. Oolong tea is made from partially fermented leaves and is strong and dark. Of all these I think green jasmine tea is the nicest with food. (Do not confuse any of these teas with 'China tea' which is a tea blended for the British market.)

Chinese wines are usually made from fermented rice, the most famous being Shaoxing which is also used for cooking. It has a very different flavour from wine made from grapes and is rather an acquired taste. Many European wines go very well with Chinese food, particularly dry whites and light reds. In recent years whiskey and cognac have become very popular with the more affluent Hong Kong Chinese who drink these neat with their meals.

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