THE CHINESE New Year, in this instance the inauguration of the year of the monkey, is upon us. Dragons, firecrackers and food all play an important part in the colorful celebrations of the event and a number of restaurants offer a special banquet for invited guests, then repeat the feast for the public.
By all means, if it is convenient and affordable, attend one of them. Inevitably there will be several courses that are unusual and the effort made in presentation -- one of the most important standards by which Chinese chefs are judged -- almost certainly will exceed that given to everyday fare. Consider gazing upon a winter melon filled with mushrooms and ham-flavored broth, an entire steamed flounder or sea bass swimming gracefully across a platter, a boneless stuffed duck or chicken, or a rainbow of vegetables in a delicate sauce garnished with mushrooms or crabmeat. But keep in mind the possiblity of sampling a Chinese banquet does not cease when the final firecracker bursts.
Try ordering a special meal at most restaurants and you are met by stony silence or a suggestion that you will find everything you could want on the menu. Not so with a Chinese restaurant. Call or drop by and explain that you have organized a party of six, eight or 10 persons and want to come in at 8 p.m. on Thursday for a banquet meal. (With eight or 10, you will qualify for one of those round tables with a lazy susan. Serving is easier and the group will have a lot more fun.) You can even specify the price per person you desire. The owner won't be affronted or embarrassed.
There may be language difficulties, especially over the phone, so be careful to list any dishes you want included (or just as important, any foods you do not want. No sense having a platter of sea slugs set off a wave of sea sickness.) Keep in mind the regional variations within the national cuisine; do not expect a Cantonese restaurant to do a good job with Peking or Szechwan recipes. Remember, too, that to the Chinese food is meant to feed the mind as well as the stomach. Harmony is achieved through presentation of a spectrum of colors, textures and flavors. Even the most enthusiastic Szechwan chef would not suggest a succession of firey recipes. At the same time, it is sometimes difficult to convince a Chinese waiter or manager that you do want authentic seasoning, however strong, and off-beat the foods-tuffs. Be polite, but be persistant if he suggest a poo-poo appetizer or a combination platter.
You may, or course, feel that a poo-poo platter suits you perfectly. In that case, there is no need to seek further. But I think anyone who is in love with the beauty and extraordinary variety of fine Chinese cooking feels a surge of pity upon passing a couple in a restaurant attacking identical combination platters. More Americans are cooking Chinese recipes at home, but to do them successfully a frame of taste reference is necessary.
So let your fingers do some walking, away from Column A and Column B and into the heart of the menu. Skip the carryout and stay for awhile. Almost no dish in the vast Chinese repertory tastes as good reheated as it does fresh.
Chinese cooking in this country has come a long way from the chop suey and chow mein days when railroad workers pretended they were chefs and drew customers by offering an impressive quantity of food at low prices. Increased immigration of skilled kitchen craftsmen in recent years means chefs' "special dishes" often really are special and have made distinctive regional menu a reality in locations other than the vast Chinese communities of San Francisco and New York.
In the old days, the trick, as we know now, lay in making more from less by deft slicing and stretching. Today that still is true with some preparations, but there is no reason why a duck or whole fish should be priced lower in a fine Chinese restaurant than in a fine French restaurant. Ingredients cost the same. The labor required is the same or perhaps greater and a number of Chinese have erased two other stereotypes by opening beautifully appointed and decorated restaurants in high rent areas. This is not a plea for higher prices; it is merely a recognition that the expectation of a "cheap feed" is outdated, especially if one expects quality ingredients and workmanship. In appraising what you are served, consider not just the overall taste, but the balance and nuances of seasoning, the care with which meat and vegetables have been sliced, the texture of vegetables and sauces and signs of over-or underfrying.
My own recollection of early Chinese meals, of my indoctrination into this least demanding and most pleasurable of cults, is hazy, like the watercolor print of a Chinese landscape. I recall a mementuous first encounter with Peking duck at, appropriately, the old Peking on 13th Street; the first ordered ahead meal, shared with a group of musician-aficionados late at night in a Mott Street storefront; horizon-expanding banquets at the Empress on Vermont Avenue when David Le was still a partner there and had launched his ambitious and ultimately successful attempt to interest Washingtonians in banquet fare.More recently there have been samplings of various regional cuisines and the new level of sophistication (and cost) explored by innovative restaurants such as David K's in New York and the Imperial Palace or Kee Joon's in San Francisco.
In whatever setting, at whatever time, Chinese food is conducive to group eating and therfore festive by definition. Even on non-banquet nights, you can explore a wider range ofc the restaurant's offerings and save money by ordering family style. Appetizer(s) or soup and a main dish per person is the standard formula, plus or minus a main dish depending on the GPA (group appetite quotient.) The food will arrive on platters and should be shared by everyone. Do not allow individuals to order independently. Be firm about that even at the sacrifice of democratic principles.
If one dish is abhorant to someone in the group, he or she may skip it without going hungry. There will be plenty of food. Appoint a chairman before the waiter arrives and take suggestion, then pare them down to a reasonable number of dishes. The recommended form is to select from the different groupings on the menu -- fish, poultry, port, etc. Be sure at least one or two dishes are new as well as some standbys that are acceptable to all. In this way the group can expand its taste horizons at a minimum cost, or a minimum sacrifice if the new dish isn't for you.
Often children will be more receptive to new dishes than adults. The six-year-old in our house, who is not without some of the food prejudices expected of one her age, has become a connoisseur of mui-shi port. Spareribs or shrimp, plus rice, will keep a child (or adult) alive for the evening, even if everything else is refused. And even the Chinese, whose fondness for children is legendary, will not compromise their search for culinary happiness to the dictates of a child or child-like adult.
Personally, I'm more indulgent of individuality when it comes to choosing beverages. Beer or tea suits me fine, and while there are several full-flavored wines such as Gwurztraminer or the American blancs de pinor noir that can match well with some dishes, I don't push for them.
As for eating utensils, I can't remember when I first learned how to use chopsticks, but my dining life has been happier since despite the occassional accidents that have increased my cleaning bills over the years or prompted pieces of food to dive into a tea cup. Somehow eating with chopsticks, like skating to waltz music, establishes a rhythm that feels right. A waiter or dining companion will provide instructions. Don't worry about early failures and be willing to switch to a fork or spoon when your hand becomes tired.