Wednesday, March 4, 2015

真的吗:The Round Table Experience

I remember when we moved into our new house in the hills and I was helping out with the designing and decorating. When it came to the dinner table, I decided to go with the round one. I figured, rectangles, been there, done that. By the time we installed it, some unexpected advantages or disadvantages, depending on how you look at it, showed up. Due to the longitudinal nature of our legs and the central placement of the table's, things got intimate real fast. Great for family dinners, kind of weird for guests.

Either way, encountering a round table in China is common in most households and restaurants. And for many more reasons than intimacy. Today, however, I want to look at the restaurant setting a bit.
Table before setting
Table after setting

Remember in China, many dishes are eaten at one time. So having a round table like above, especially rotating ones, allows everyone to conveniently enjoy their dish of choice. A table like this can host up to 10 people and 20 dishes at one time. With so many diners though, you would fare better playing Wheel of Fortune than guaranting that the dish you want doesn't show up on your side of the table empty.

Meats are always served first, usually cold dishes 凉菜 following by hot dishes. There is no limit to the types of meat offered. Yes, I have knowingly eaten frog. No, I have not knowingly eaten any member of the Canis lupus family and have no intention of doing so.

Cold dish of sliced beef and cilantro

Hot dish of beef, mushrooms and
fried pigeon egg soup

Stir-fried vegetable dishes and soups slowly start trickling in to aid with meat digestion. Thinly sliced potatoes 土豆丝, garlic shoots 蒜菜  and steamed pumpkins and yams are some of the general favorites. Up north you may be offered cute beef wraps. In Sichuan, most definitely expect some Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐。It's fresh tofu and minced meat flavoured with bean sauce 豆瓣, chili pepper 辣椒 and presently much appreciated prickly ash pepper 花椒。

Mapo Tofu 麻婆豆腐

Remember I said that there's always something to surprise me in the world of Chinese cuisine. On this particular occasion, my new friends ask me if I have ever eaten grass. I immediately thought that numbness from all the 花椒 I had be eating in the 麻婆豆腐 had somehow hit my brain. They asked me again and soon the waitress bought out this dish.

Raw edible Chrysanthemum leaves 茼苞

They begged me to eat it, persuaded me that it was a special feature of Sichuan cuisine. But all I could think was that I hit an all time low. I had eaten grass. I must admit that the accompanying sauce had a beautiful sweet, tart flavour, light citrus notes...yummm...but this doesn't change the fact that I ate raw grass.

Now it will probably be about 30 minutes into the meal and you would have seen lot of dishes spinning around and around the table. Plates becoming empty and being replaced with more innovative dishes than before. But all you really want is some rice. Where is that rice? Well how do I defend this? The point of a round table meal is not to become stuffed up on starch but to enjoy the different flavours and cooking styles presented by the chef. When you think about it, rice can be quite a distraction, because if you eat it quickly, there won't be space for anything else. (Not even I can be convinced with that little speech). So the rice is served last. And in some cases, like my recent Chengdu experience, not at all. I waited, while sadly picking at long-empty dishes and not a white fluffy grain appeared. But I should have known when I saw the fried peanuts and sliced fruits. They are always the last dishes served.

Almost forgot the beverages. When eating at home, drinks are pretty much ignored until after the meal. On the other hand, when eating out, tea is obviously the drink of choice; preferably buckwheat tea because of it's light, clean, slightly sweet flavour. Soda and orange juice are also available. Can some one tell me why it's always Tropicana juice?  If we are celebrating, let's say, a visiting foreigner in the midst, or something actually important like Spring Festival, you can expect baijiu 白酒, wine and nut milk to make an appearance. No cup touches the lip without a toast of some kind. Towards your neighbour or the whole table, doesn't matter, but has to be done. I sometimes find myself toasting just so I could keep my throat lubricated.

After the meal, those with heavy bellies roll out the door and those who thought they would be the first to ever outdo baijiu stagger out under the starlight black sky in search for a nearby KTV.

Do you think you have the stamina to endure a Round Table dinner or lunch? Let me know down below...