You can slurp and burp as much as you like in a dai pai dong but don’t be deceived, at a Chinese banquet or corporate dinner, you’ll be judged on your table manners. Lydia Yang has the lowdown.
In traditional Chinese culture, sharing a meal with someone is more than socialising, rather it’s a way to honour guests (and host), strengthen bonds between friends and make connections in the world of business. Thus, expats need to take formal Chinese dining as seriously as any company meeting; the manner in which you conduct yourself during a meal will be used to judge you in other aspects of life.
Here are some of the basic rules you should follow.
Let’s be seated
The seating arrangement is probably the most important part of Chinese dining etiquette, and for this reason the host arrives in advance to lead everyone to their seats. You should allow your host to tell you where to sit. Be sure to formally introduce yourself to your fellow guests.
In general, when seated at a round table, the guest of honour faces the entrance with his back to the wall. The most notable guests are seated nearest the guest of honour and the host. The ‘least important’ person sits closest to the entrance, directing and communicating with the waiters.
Toasts are common during Chinese banquets, with the first being made by the host and the second by the guest of honour. Personalised toasts are then made around the table, so be prepared for your moment in the spotlight.
Time to order
Tea is served as soon as you sit down in a restaurant, while you consult the menu. After filling everyone’s cup, the waiter leaves the teapot on the table, guests then serve themselves, and each other.
We use both hands when we offer someone tea – hold the handle with one hand and the bottom of the cup with the other hand.
When someone pours tea into your cup, tap the table with your fi rst two fi ngers two or three times – this is a way of saying thank you. The pourer will stop pouring when seeing this gesture, since it indicates that you have had enough. Table tapping is also a way to signal to your waiter that the teapot needs refilling.
Although guests are encouraged to look at the menu and say what they would like to eat, it is the host who places the order. Expect him to be very solicitous and ask questions like, “Is there any food that you don’t eat?” “Which dishes do you like?” “Would you like me to order more?”
If your host insists you order a dish, choose an inexpensive one that everyone is likely to enjoy. Remember that when dining formally, we seldom order individual plates of food – dishes are placed in the centre of the table for everyone to share.
The main event
At the beginning of a formal Chinese meal, you will be offered a wet towel on which to wipe your hands, don’t use this to mop your face. If you are going to eat lobster, chicken or fruit, you will also be given a small bowl of water – don’t drink it, use it to wash your fingers.
Note that the rice bowl is for your food; the small plate is for bones,seeds and other scraps that you find inedible.
In the West, people rest their plates on the table and bring the food to their mouths with a fork; we Chinese pick up our rice bowl, bring it close to our mouths, bend over the table, and eat facing the bowl. You pick up your bowl with your thumb on the mouth of the bowl, your first, middle and third finger support the bottom of the bowl and your palm is empty. Try not to be the first to start eating, and always wait for your host to say, “Let’s eat,” before you begin.
When helping yourself to the shared dishes, you should take food from the plates in front of you rather than those in the middle of the table or in front of others. You are free to fill your bowl yourself but you should also take the initiative and fill the bowls of those around you. If fellow guests add food to your bowl, always express your thanks.
As often as not, a Lazy Susan will be provided to make the sharing of dishes easier. Before you spin the ‘turntable’ (very gently), check to see that no one is in the process of serving themselves from a shared plate.
If you can, sample a little of each dish (even the bird’s nest soup) and don’t be surprised if your host continually asks you to eat more, and try everything. At the end of the meal, be sure to leave a small amount of food in your bowl to honour your host’s generosity. Never empty your bowl – this would imply your host has not provided enough to eat.
Leaving the table
A formal Chinese meal can last three hours or more and you should try to stay the distance. But if you decide to leave early, quietly inform those seated beside you (don’t say goodbye to everyone at the table), and then make your excuses to your host. You need to apologise to your host without taking up too much of his time – keep him talking for too long and he would be forced to neglect his other guests.
Things get complicated when it comes to paying the bill. As an invited guest you must show that you are willing to pay – you need to ask to do so several times – but you will always be refused. The bill has to be paid by the host eventually, otherwise he will lose face.
On using chopsticks
Mandarin Time School offers Mandarin classes, a summer camp for kids and tailor-made Chinese-culture workshops at its Central campus and also in Discovery Bay.
You can contact founder Lydia Yang at 6111 0523 or [email protected].