Main dish on the side

July 6th, 2010

“Ok, so we’d like the fried something-fish, those spicy little chicken pieces in the basket, the green beans with tiny minced meat, those pinkygreen cold cucumber slices and the pork with green pepper strips. Honey, what was it that you wanted?”

Mister Meyer raises his head from the menu. His wife however is terribly busy talking with Miss Johnson about the pros and cons of buying fake handbags. “Oh, right”, he remembers, ” we definitely need this potato mountain. You know, the dwarfy fries if you will. Those are just to die for”.

The waiter, a distant brother-in-lawish cousin of second degree to Mister Li’s aunt in the mother side of the family, is duly noting down the order and then returns to look at Mister Meyer with great attention. Mister Meyer, being done with his order, just sits there and looks back at him, not showing any signs of adding something. The waiter is obviously confused. But the reply he gives not only confuses Mister Meyer. It has the same effect on Mister Johnson and would even confuse the ladies, if only they were less busy with their topic.

“And for main course”?

Mister Meyer is slightly helpless. Well aware that an uncomfortable pause is beginning to build up, he quickly tries to find a solution for a problem he doesn’t even understand.

“Ehm, well, so we’d also like the lamb with coriander.” It almost rather sounded like a question than another order. As Mister Meyer looks at the waiter again, his confusion is quite tangible. How many dishes would he need to order until it’s acknowledged as a valid meal?

The waiter on the other hand is just as helpless. But he eventually heads off to the kitchen. Another one of these weird foreigner orders…

Here we were able to witness a scene which every day takes place in this country in one way or the other. Our culinary quartet from the West will shake their heads upon leaving the restaurant. They don’t understand why in China people need to order so many main dishes that it’s impossible to finish the plates. The clearing waiter on the other hand is also shaking his head. And it’s because of the foreigners who always order so many side dishes while forgetting so many other important parts of a meal.

The yummy tummy reader probably guessed it: once again everything is different in Li country.

In the West we have gotten used to a very clear food order: Steak with fries, chicken with rice, lamb with sauteed veggies, red snapper with salat on the side. Neatly following formular t as in tasty we call the dish by the meat part and treat the herbal part as secondary level. It’s on the side any way and therefore not too important. But noone cares too much about this, because at the end of the day, in the West we are served a pre-arranged meal all on one plate for a single person.

You may order a starter prior to the main course and that could be anything: hot, cold, meaty or veggie. Being a starter, it has no further description like, let’s say, side-dish-starter or main-hors d’œvre. And nobody cares should you not order any starter at all.

In China people expect you to be able to compse a dinner. You don’t get your all-on-one-plate servings, but need to order every food category yourself. Oh, and of course not only for yourself, but for the whole group. The plates will be gathered on the turntable in the middle and everybody enjoys everything. If it’s tasty. And if it’s composed with sense.

There should be a soup in order to warm up the stomach. A cold starter (there aren’t really any warm starters) should be on the table and of course a number of dishes, covering at least two meat categories. And certainly some veggie plates as well. After all that we turn to the main course. This is usually constituted by a bowl of rice, Baozi (a dough ball with filling) or noodles. Something with starch. Being a foreigner, this can certainly mess up your sense for what terms to use for food. A small bowl of plain rice….and that’s supposed to be a main course? You’d never guess if noone tells you.

Tea is also a must on the table. Or beer for that matter. A clear choice. And with both there is a single principle: The host (we’ll learn who that is in a minute) refills. And refilling means to watch out closely that no cup or glass is ever less than half way full. That constitutes a problem for the peace-loving European who likes to empty the glass or is looking forward to the drinkable temperature of the tea. It’s like consumption stress: much too often will he drink and also way too much, because the glass is always full.

The person to refill the glasses also has to watch out for one more thing: never to place the tea can facing any of the guests. That’s rude, will bring heaps of bad luck and constitutes the beginning of the end of the world. The only strange thing: this seems to be limited to the guests on the refiller’s own table. Nobody gives a chicken foot, should it point directly towards 120 other people in the room.

The host in the role of the refiller needs to be very much up to speed. Should he fail to fulfill the filling, he will be perceived as being stingy and inhospitable. Optionally this arguable fame falls to the younger generation who are required to take care of the oder ones. Regardless of who is the host.

And that brings us to the topic of “who is the host?”. Let’s assume that Mister and Misses Meyer have called up Mister and Misses Johnson to go and have dinner with them. In the Chinese mind, everything is set from that very moment. Mister Meyer is expected to book the restaurant, choose the dishes (at least 2 more than anyone can eat), watch over the drink supply and at the end of the day to pay the bill. Mister Johnson’s task on the other hand is to act like he wanted to take on the check. After that, both should fight for a short moment, only to have Mister Meyer prevail. This enables Mister Johnson to express a friendly “next time it’s on me”.

Subsequently that’s something he should do. And everything starts over from the beginning. With or without main course.

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