Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fine Dining: The Chinese Banquet or Business Dinner

When doing business in China, it’s advisable for one to be prepared for the all important business dinner.  Chinese folks put great value on guanxi, or personal connections, and many people believe that eating is one of the best ways to develop corporate relationships. 

One shouldn’t tread blindly into these meals, so here is my informal primer on attending the Chinese banquet.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending some dinners while on Chris' group outing to Qiandao Hu.  

Many times clients or companies will take you to the "most famous" restaurant in town.  This restaurant specialized in fish head soup.  Each fish used in the soup was so special that it came with its own barcode. 

Before Dinner

Punctuality is key.  Make sure to arrive to the meal on time.  The Chinese are usually on a schedule when eating, and don’t value fashionable tardiness.

You and your colleagues will more than likely eat in a private room called a baojian.  Dinners are usually held in baojians so diners can be noisy without disturbing other patrons.  A noisy dinner is a successful dinner.

Diners usually sit around large, round tables with even numbers of place settings.  (It is bad luck to have an odd number of people at the tables.)  When you arrive, don’t immediately sit down; wait to be shown where to sit.  The host or most important person usually sits facing the door, and the second most important or assistant will sit in the seat closest to the door so he or she can discreetly pay the bill. 

Our table was ready in our baojian. 
At the dinner, don't dig in until the host starts eating. 
When you arrive at the table, there will more than likely be some tea, a few cold plates, and some other beverages on a glass lazy Susan.  After you sit down, feel free to sip your tea, but wait until the host starts eating or drinking to dig in. 

During Dinner

The banquet dinner is not for the light of stomach.

When there are at least four dishes, the host will usually start the festivities by taking a bite.  Then dishes are shared by rotating the Lazy Susan. Each diner samples every dish using his or her respective chopsticks.  (At nicer restaurants, dishes will have serving chopsticks.  Don’t eat with the serving chopsticks!) After picking up a piece of food, set or tap it on your smaller plate then eat it.

When taking food, each person used his or her own chopsticks. 
When you take your food, don’t take too much food!  Many times, diners will be expected to sample upwards of a dozen different dishes.

During our dinners, the food kept coming!  When room on the lazy Susan ran out, the waitress simply stacked dishes of food. 
It’s also expected that diners sample EVERY dish.  If you are grossed out at first sight, it is completely appropriate to mention a food allergy.  If it looks edible, take a small bite.  If it’s yummy, take a few more bites.  If it’s not, leave it on the plate.  Food on your plate is good luck and the ultimate compliment to the chef.  (If you have food on your plate, the chef has done a good job of filling his or her diners.)

The fish head soup was yummy!  I actually avoided eating the head by taking broth and tomatoes. 
Some rules are meant to be broken.  I passed on the duck tongue.
Rice may be brought out at the end of the meal.  The rice is not the main course.  It is commonly used to fill the empty spaces of your stomach and absorb yummy sauces. 

If you need to take a rest between the courses, place your chopsticks on your plate or on the chopstick rest near your plate.  DON’T put them upright in the rice.  That is bad luck.

Most diners may notice that many of the foods are quite different than those found in the American Chinese Restaurants.  One big difference is the presence of bones and shells in the food.  If you happen to encounter a shell or bone when eating, quietly spit it on the plate.   It’s gross, but after a while you get used to it.

Many fish dishes are served with the head and bones.  Do not try to swallow the bone, you will choke.  
When eating shrimp, spit out the shells.  Don't peel the shrimp with your hands.
Don’t take the last piece of food on a plate. That is considered greedy.

I think everyone at the table wanted this last piece of pork. 
There are also drinking rules at these shindigs. 

Do not fill your own glass.  If you notice your dining partners need a refill, take the bottle and fill their glasses.  They will do the same for you.  If they don’t notice you need a beverage, feel free to top up their glass, then fill your own glass.  If you don't want more to drink, tap the table with two fingers. 

The host and other attendants will more than likely make many toasts.  Don’t drink your alcohol until people start making toasts. If the diners are lucky (like we were), the toasts will be beer toasts.  If you are not so lucky, the host or another guest will pull out a clear, grain alcohol like liquid called baijiu.  Baijiu is by far the worst drink I have ever tasted.

In my humble opinion baijiu is awful, but it is usually a staple of Chinese business dinners.
This clear, pungent liquid burns on the way down. 
If the host or guest makes a toast, hold your glass up, and then tap the Lazy Susan with your glass.  If the host says, “GANBEI!” drain your glass. 

Instead of clinking glasses, we tapped our glasses on the Lazy Susan.
Ladies, do not feel obligated to ganbei.  It is perfectly acceptable to play the “I’m a lady, I can’t ganbei” card and sip the drink.  If you aren’t a drinker, feel free to play the alcohol allergy card and ganbei with non-alcoholic beverages.  

Wrapping it Up

As dinner draws to a close, the waiter will bring plates of fruit for desert. 

Since the fruit is here, the end is near!
You may feel the need to pick your teeth at the end of the meal.  If you need to do so, pick your teeth with one hand and cover your mouth with the other.

If the dinner has an end time, diners will leave at that time.  People usually don’t linger at the table.  It is common to take the conversation elsewhere.   

Our dinner ended at 8:00.  We boarded the bus for the hotel at 7:57.  The mass exodus was hilarious.
After dinner, it is important to thank the host, and inform them how much you enjoyed the experience. 

The most important rule when attending a banquet is have fun!  The banquet experience has allowed me to sample some foods that I wouldn’t ordinarily order and has allowed me to bond with many colleagues.  Ganbei!