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What Can You Expect in a Traditional Chinese Banquet?

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by Cristina Dimen (subscribe)
Cristina crafts pieces on travel, parenting and lifestyle. Connect with her at or and @CristinaDimen on Twitter. WN mentor link:
Published May 24th 2012
If you've ever been invited to a Chinese wedding, birthday or an event where you partake of a traditional Chinese banquet, consider yourself lucky—you're in for a sumptuous feast. Steeped in symbolism, the banquet provides attendees with a chance to sample a host of native cuisine, family style.

Dancing lions symbolize good luck.

Immerse yourself in a setting where the color red appears in most everything—décor, food, table linens, and depending on the occasion, attire. Red is the color for happiness and good fortune.

Lion Dancing

Enjoy the array of entertainment, which will give you a glimpse of the merry making that characterizes Chinese culture, such as lion dancing. Remember to place a crisp bill in one of the red envelopes on your table. When the lions dance around the room, make sure to feed at least one of them with that money-laden red envelope.

Food Culture

When it comes to food, a banquet often comprises of eight to 10 different courses, which vary depending on the type of event. The Chinese word for the number eight sounds like "good luck" and thus, the number is considered auspicious.

Seated at round tables for 10 to 12 guests, enjoy typical courses—cold appetizers, soups, various meat and vegetable dishes, seafood, fowl, noodles, fruit and sweets.

First course. Cold appetizers: slices of pork, jellyfish, bean curd, seaweed and beef shank.

Strips of chicken and beef with vegetables. The latter signifies a close familial bond.

Traditional shark fin soup with crab or chicken. Shark fin is often substituted with another ingredient.

Tender beef with onions.

Whole chicken symbolizes the dragon and phoenix—unity and completeness. Thus, even the head (by the spoon) is presented on the platter.

Slices of Peking duck, which signifies joy and celebration.

Sweet and sour fish with vegetables. Fish is a sign of prosperity and abundance.

While rice often arrives in the beginning of most meals, it's served towards the end in a Chinese banquet. It's best to wait for your rice to arrive when staff deems it apropos.

Usually served last, noodles signify longevity.

Fresh fruits—such as tangerines (luck) or oranges (wealth), plus hot sweet red bean soup with lotus seeds (good luck color and seeds, which signify many kids) may also be served. And of course, enjoy your warm tea, which symbolizes respect.

Tips & Etiquette:

  • When attending a Chinese banquet, leave your diet at home because guests are encouraged to eat heartily.

  • However, don't forget that you'll be sampling anywhere from eight to 10 courses, so you need to reserve some room for the other goodies.

  • Plus, you want to make sure everyone at your table gets to sample each course, so small portions are good, too.

  • Pace yourself so you savor each entrée. But, keep in mind there are more courses to be served, so wait staff will leave the platters for a bit of time, but will take them away sooner than you may think. Don't worry, though, you can always ask them to place some of the food onto your plate or in a foam takeout container.

  • Although the order in which the courses are served may vary, depending on the event, they'll still be offered in the venue's predetermined format. Relax and enjoy each course as it arrives, and avoid asking for things like rice, which is served towards the end.

  • Depending on the event and your hosts, it's considered okay to leave some food untouched or uneaten. This is a sign that there was more than enough food served during the banquet, and that guests left content and satisfied with their meal. To avoid wasting food, guests are often encouraged to take the leftovers home via those takeout containers.

  • And as with any host, yours will be happy to know that you and your fellow guests had an ample amount of dishes at their occasion, which signify prosperity and abundance.

    Have you attended a traditional Chinese banquet? Please share your experiences or thoughts. What part(s) of the event did you like, or not like?
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