The idea of Chinese Dining Etiquette has been floating around in my head recently, although I'm not sure why. I eat Chinese much less often now, let alone eat it in the restaurants at a big table.
Nevertheless, there are a few things I've picked up in my years dining as a Chinese American that I thought might be fun to share. I don't know the history of these things, but it might make you a little more confident should you garner an invitation to a Chinese banquet or home-cooked dinner.
- Lazy Susans are lots of fun, but as the dishes arrive, they are always spun to the guest of honor first. If you are sitting next to the guest of honor, you serve them a portion before you serve yourself. If there is no guest of honor, spin to the oldest person first. (And it always seems to spin clockwise, but don't tell me why. I think you can spin either way depending on which is more efficient.) Always look before you spin, as someone may be serving themselves or others and can be quite baffled if the dish is whisked away!
- NEVER NEVER NEVER take a full portion of a dish on the first round. For example, if there are 10 people at the table, you don't take 1/10 of the portion, like you might with an American meal. You take a small amount, probably a piece or two of each thing, then you go back for more after you've finished the first round. This is so that everyone gets to have their favorite bits first, and no one has to worry about the first person grabbing it all for themselves.
- Always use the serving utensils provided. If there aren't any available, it is acceptable to use the tops of your chopsticks instead. Switch back to the regular end when actually eating.
- Should a whole fish be served, someone experienced in the art of "deboning" the fish usually gently pushes aside the scallions and ginger, then uses the spoon to gently scrape the fish off the bones and cut into portion-sized pieces. You don't just scrape what you want off the bones and neglect the rest of it. Ask your waiter for help if no one in your party knows how to do it.
- When serving tea, serve those around you first. If you are served tea, you can silently indicate "thank you" by tapping a finger on the table next to the teacup twice.
- Never season a whole dish with salt/pepper/soy sauce/hot sauce. However, you may season your own portion. Out of respect for the chefs / cooks, always taste before seasoning (that's my general rule for all dining though).
- Banquet menus sometimes don't include steamed rice. This is because the food is supposed to be rich, sumptuous and filling by itself. Fried rice or noodles may be served at the end as a course in itself. I'm not sure if it's okay to ask for steamed rice along the way.
- Bones should be removed from the mouth with chopsticks if possible. You can use fingers for seafood or bone-in pieces of meat, but the sign of an experienced chopstick-user is to use only chopsticks!
- Ice water is usually only served if you ask for it. Same with drinks, no one will hand you a menu or ask, it's up to you to inquire from your waiter.
- If the server is trying to clear a dish that has a few pieces of food left on it, don't be surprised if the host or someone near you sweeps it onto your plate. Don't worry, it's a compliment and you don't have to eat it, even though that wouldn't stop me!
Invitation to someone's home:
- As always, a guest should never show up empty-handed. A box of pastries (since Chinese are not known for desserts) or a bag of oranges (sign of good luck) are always welcome.
- Chinese events start on time, please do not be late.
- Chinese home cooks can be very self-deprecating. Even when serving their famous dishes, they can preface it by saying, "Oh, it's not as good as it usually is" or "Oh, it needs a little more XXX seasoning." This is your clue to forcefully jump in and say that it is quite delicious just the way it is (hopefully it is!).
- Again, soy sauce isn't a table condiment in Chinese homes, so please don't insult your host by pouring it all over your food before tasting it. And maybe, just once, your food doesn't need soy sauce!
- Soup can be served at the beginning or the end of the meal. Just roll with it.
I'm sure there's more I can babble about, but I think this is a good start. All this talk of Chinese banquets is making me hungry!