16 Sep The Grand Parade of Pigs
The deep, dark secret of Hong Kong’s world famous eating culture is this: Nobody likes Chinese banquet food.
That’s the topic I tackle in this month’s National Geographic Traveler magazine–my article is part of their terrific new all-food issue.
“Banquet food is always too salty, too rich and too greasy. And the dishes are always more or less the same.” This is not a person speaking, it is actually the translation of a Cantonese dialogue I had to memorize from an early lesson (“At The Banquet”) in my language classes. Little did I know how useful the phrases in this chapter would be: “This dish is too fattening and has too much MSG.” “Do you think this abalone comes from a can?”
As always, some of my favorite stuff got chopped in process. So for those of you who would like to read my original, the “Director’s Cut” manuscript is here.
My favorite part of every Chinese Banquet is something I call the Grand Parade of Pigs:
The restaurant lights dim, a squadron of waiters bursts through the kitchen doors balancing platters heavy with roast suckling pigs, their eyes replaced by little red electric bulbs that blink on and off and on again. (Since this wacky performance piece is the standard intro nowadays for every Chinese banquet from Toronto to New York to Hong Kong, nobody pays any attention to it.)Then course after course quickly follows (usually 8, since 8 is the lucky Chinese number). A big soup of chicken and pork, with a faintly medicinal herbal fragrance (Soups, in Chinese culture, often do double duty as health tonics). A giant fish, steamed –usually until rubbery. Finally, little bowls of noodles and fried rice signal the meal’s end. (In a polite touch, the host saves the starchy staples until the last course, so that guests may fill their bellies with more expensive foods first).
I’m probably being a bit too hard on banquet food. Certainly the food at any run of the mill Hong Kong banquet is still far more delicious and better prepared than a meal in New York’s Chinatown. (The curse of living in Hong Kong is that once you do, you will never be able to eat dim sum anywhere in the world again. Except maybe in the HK enclaves of Toronto and Vancouver). Actually, I’ve been to some pretty decent Chinese banquets lately. One of my pals in Hong Kong is a politician, and he is always inviting me to his political party’s shindigs in Kowloon. Since the purpose of these banquets is fund raising and frolic, rather than “showing face”, the menus don’t contain all the expensive show-off ingredients like Shark’s fin, bird’s nest, abalone, etc. The banquet organizers are then free to spend their food budget on–what a concept!–simple and delicious Chinese restaurant food.
Even though banquets can be fun, I prefer eating Chinese cuisine in smaller, more intimate settings (in Hong Kong, that means groups of 6-8). And if I have a choice, I’ll steer away from the giant, noisy Hong Kong eateries called “Jao Lau” (literally, “Wine House”, a term which tells you something about the origins of these big restaurants) and head to a quiet, more intimate place. I’ve assimilated a lot of Chinese culture, but this is where my Western cultural bias comes out big time–I still don’t enjoy shouting across a big round table, and standing up and leaning over to reach the tasty dish with my chopsticks. Here’s what makes me a happy eater in Hong Kong: a plain white tablecloth, a party of 6 to 8, and a restaurant with no red curtains or golden dragons in sight. Like this place, tucked away in an old Hong Kong converted shophouse.