Photo: Chinese banquet tables

Larger Chinese banquets may fill sports arenas, as in Chengdu.

Photograph by Xinhua, eyevine/Redux

By Daisann McLane

"I’m sorry, but I can’t meet you this evening. I have to go to a banquet. I have no choice.”

My friend Leung sounds as happy as if he were telling me he is about to have a root canal without anesthesia. For this is the dark secret of Hong Kong’s world-renowned eating culture: Nobody likes Chinese banquet food.

“Banquet food is always too salty, too rich, and too greasy. And the dishes are always more or less the same.”

That is the translation of a Cantonese dialogue, “At the Banquet,” that I had to memorize in my language classes. Classic Chinese banquets—for weddings, family get-togethers, and political and cultural association gatherings—entail sitting down to a meal with dozens, if not hundreds, of other guests, a situation that favors mass production and standardization over artistry and experimentation.

Before I ever went to China I’d heard about these extravagant feasts and naturally assumed they represented the epitome of the Chinese culinary experience. I recall how I drooled in 1972 when I saw the photos of President Nixon in Beijing being feted by Premier Zhou Enlai with multiple courses that included pickled cucumbers, exotic fungi, fried prawns, and steamed chicken with coconut. Someday, I decided, I too would recite flowery toasts over similar delicacies at a sublime banquet table! Imagine the shock when I discovered, after moving to Hong Kong, that banquets were on the D list of food-centered occasions.

“At a typical banquet you have grandma, your friends, maybe your boss, and they do not all like the same things,” explains my friend Jane, a longtime China resident.

“To make everybody happy, you need to let everybody know exactly what they should expect.” So banquet food follows a script right from the opening salvo, which I call the Grand Parade of Pigs: The restaurant lights dim, and a squadron of waiters bursts through the kitchen doors balancing platters heavy with roasted pigs sporting blinking red electric bulbs where their eyes had been. This wacky performance piece has become the standard kickoff for Chinese banquets from Toronto to Hong Kong, so no one pays much attention to it.

Course after course then follows, usually eight, since eight is considered the luckiest number in Chinese culture. A big soup of chicken and pork, with an herbal, faintly medicinal fragrance (soups in China often do double duty as health tonics). A giant fish, steamed, usually until it’s rubbery. A smattering of other dishes. Then, finally, little bowls of noodles and fried rice, which signal the meal’s end—a polite touch in traditional Chinese culture indicating that the host saved the starchy staples until the last course to aid digestion and enable guests to get their fill of the more expensive foods, especially the meats and fish.

“What is most important is that we all come together to eat,” my friend Po Ying explains to me one evening as we both reach across the table with our chopsticks to gaap sung—pick—a bit of tasty steamed mushroom from the top of a heaping platter. The greens look soggy, the chicken tough. Yet everyone is eating with gusto.

That is when I realize that today’s Chinese banquet has become more ritual than meal, its backstory the memory of privation, hardship, and empty larders. The food may be imperfect, even awful. But the food is not the point. From start to finish, the most important element at a Chinese banquet is the taste of abundance.

Contributing editor Daisann McLane writes Traveler’s Real Travel column.

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