Ni Chi Le Ma? Or… Banquet Etiquette for the Uninitiated
Linda Lee, owner of Linda Lee’s Interactive Chinese, led a hungry SACS group on a delicious culinary and cultural adventure through her talk, Ni Chi Le Ma? She began by offering several quotations from Chinese scholars that confirmed the importance of dining well in Chinese culture:
Confucius (孔夫子; Kǒng Fūzǐ)
One can never be too particular about one’s food.
Mencius (孟子 Mèng Zǐ)
Food and sex, natural needs.
From that point on we all knew we were in for an enjoyable talk!
Linda concentrated her talk on the proper behavior of a good guest and how to be a gracious host. Some of the many points she made included the importance of proper manners that will give your host face and how to show you are appreciative in the Chinese manner. Unlike in the West, in China there is always a host. If you are invited to eat it will normally be in a restaurant and whoever did the inviting will be the host and will expect to pay for the meal. Although arguing over who has the honor of paying the bill is common (in less formal occasions splitting the bill), it is considered poor form.
We learned that in polite Chinese company one doesn’t accept an invitation too quickly. If a host invites one to a meal the guest might often say no, and then the host will insist with the guest again demurring that the host must not go to so much trouble until the host will insist that he really wants to have this meal with you. Usually on the third time, you graciously accept the invitation. It means that you weren’t jumping at it like a starving beggar trying to get a meal, that the host really wants the guest to come, and that the guest is willing to come along and make the host happy.
Linda explained that at a banquet, the host will arrive early to make the seating arrangements and to greet the guests. Guests should arrive neither early nor late, but on time. The most senior person or host will sit furthest away from the door while the seats closest to him/her on either side are the next most prestigious until you reach the seat closest to the door. If this is the spot your boss indicated that you should sit, it might be time to update your resume. . .
The host may have ordered in advance or, once all the guests are seated, will later order the food for the entire table. For our delicious meal at Laurel, Karen Rule did the ordering and we truly feasted on Cantonese specialties. Traditionally, an even number of dishes will be ordered with rice being the last course. Generally a gracious host will ensure more food is ordered than can be consumed so all guests will be repleted.
We learned that as each dish arrives it will be placed in front of the host who will offer the first taste to the guest of honor. If a new dish is placed in front of you, you should offer to serve the guest of honor or host first. As it is passed, take care not to take too large a portion. Only touch the food closest to you as digging around for choice morsels is very poor form indeed! Also, do not take the last bite of food from a plate. The host will feel offended that he did not order sufficient food. If you are the host and wish to impress and honor your guests make sure there is a seafood course(s) included. As each course comes out wait until the guest of honor or host is served. Over-eager diners are considered greedy and ill mannered. When drinking tea, pour a cup for your neighbor before helping yourself.