Do we celebrate food ? Do we celebrate eating meals together ? Do we have our food with some mindfulness ? In India, by and large the answer may not be a convincing yes. Hey !! Wait, why am I even asking these weird questions? No. These are not irrelevant questions. About a fortnight ago, I was in China for a few days and was part of a Team Building Program with a group of my local colleagues there, around 20 of them. We traveled, stayed and yes ate together. Among all other wonderful experiences, the way the eating meals together in a celebration mode, raised the above questions.
I keeep on new going to Guangzhou in China for work. Earlier, this year I had written a piece on my food experiences there in Guangzhou city. The link is here. Well, in this visit, most of the time, we ate at local restaurants in Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province. The food was amazing and the customs or the eating habits made it even more enjoyable. So, this blog post may not dwell more on the dishes but the style of enjoying the food. Here we go….
In most of the restaurants, one would find two kinds of settings. Mostly, the tables are round shaped to accommodate around 10 people at a time. The table would have a round glass kept atop a huge bearing to allow the glass top to revolve. This glass is smaller than the table so as to allow a reasonable eating area on the periphery of the table. All food is kept on to the table top and each one would move the glass top to get the dish to serve oneself.
On the outer periphery, you would have a plate (mostly a quarter plate size), a bowl which is your main eating vessel, a soup spoon (not always though), a pair of Chopsticks and a small cup. That’s it.
Restaurants generally have both open seating area and private rooms.
The Food Service
As soon as one settles down on the table, mandatorily, a tea kettle is kept on the table. Mechanically, everyone would instantly fill his cup with that warm water (actually tea which is warm water infused with some mild tea leaves). This kettle would be kept on refilling and each one keeps on sipping it while studying the menu, placing orders, chatting, waiting for the food to arrive and even during and after the food. Customarily, each one will keep an eye on each other to ensure that his cup is instantly refilled whenever the tea is finished in the cup.
The food is generally ordered in large variety if a group is around 5 or more. Typically it would have preparations of Pork, Beef, Lamb, Chicken, Fish, Duck, Prawns, Duck Eggs, Tofu, Veggies, Mushrooms and others. A soupy dish with Chicken or Fish is almost a must. These soupy dishes are served on a tabletop stove to keep it warm. A big bowl of Rice is also a must (didn’t come across noodles as we eat here) as rice is the staple there. Then, depending upon the choice of the group, there could be 2 or 3 variations of a particular meat.
Celebrating Togetherness : The Wine
The food is generally accompanied by either a local wine made from Rice or sometimes from Jaggery. Mostly, they stick to Red Wines (China is today counted in top ten in consumption of Red wine). I was informed that Chinese would rarely drink Whisky. Beer is poor man’s drink or students who can’t afford would drink beer with meals. Wine drinking is fun. You start your meal by sipping tea, then pour wine and the first glass is gulped down. Then its up to you to how much you want to pour in your glass. There is a tradition in Chinese called, “Ganbei”- meaning drinking a toast. Now this can be too intimidating. For each one in the group would go to each one and raise Ganbei in your honour. Once I was in a group of 24 Chinese and one can understand my plight of doing those many Ganbei and by the end my head was spinning badly.
Similarly, in Hunan Province, a group of 4 ladies, decked up in traditional attire will make you drink a sweet local wine being poured into a bowl from three kettle type vessels. They also sing a local folk song. Now one can understand what happens when you drink three kettles filled with wine. The video is here: https://www.facebook.com/100000052014159/posts/2207916845886694/
Celebrating Togetherness: The Food
The restaurants would serve the dishes in no particular order (although in high end fine dining places, I am told, there are 11 course or 21 course meal which follows an order). In routine, whichever dish keeps on getting ready in the kitchen it is served. Each dish is welcomed by the group with a loud cheer. People would shout and announce welcoming the dish and immediately start eating.
Immediately, with individual chopsticks a small amount is transferred into ones bowl and the table top is pushed to the next person. The concept is that one uses the individual chopsticks to pickup food from the main serving dish, transfer it in your bowl and eat using the same chopsticks. The tip of the chopsticks, normally, doesn’t go in your mouth. It pushes the food in.
The dishes keep on coming. Each one is greeted with a loud cheer and one keeps on eating small portions, sipping wine, and of course many rounds of Ganbei, sipping tea and talking loudly. The food is enjoyed. Eaten in small quantities, variety of food is eaten to enjoy and not to stuff. The food is not very oily and spicy so is not heavy on the stomach. Wine is to enjoy and not to get drunk (their habit of keep eating along with wine helps them not to get drunk). You take an hour or so to finish your meals; or rather celebrate your meals.
The dinner would normally start at around 630 or so and would be finished latest by 8 pm.
They celebrate drinking. They celebrate eating and they eat out of the same dish to celebrate togetherness.
Its an experience and I enjoyed every bit if it. I have reproduced here above some pictures taken of the various dishes. However, I had earlier done a blogpost giving details of the dishes or the local cuisines there. The same could be found here. Do you have any experience of celebrating food, do share with me.
Bon Appetite !!
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