When it comes to ordering food for a group in a Chinese restaurant, benevolent dictatorship is always best. A good meal is a harmony of contrasting elements, with an exciting variety of ingredients, tastes and textures.
If each person simply orders the dish they fancy, the end result will be lopsided and chaotic: several chicken dishes, perhaps, or too many deep-fried ones, or more than one in a sweet-and-sour sauce. Individually, they might be delicious but collectively they are likely to overwhelm or dull the palate.
A fine Chinese meal is like a musical composition, with its peaks and lulls, its light and shade, its gentle melodies and rousing rhythms. Perfectly balanced, alternately stimulating and soothing, never cloying, it should be a sensory journey that pleases the palate and the mind.
As a veteran Sichuanese chef said to me recently, grand delicacies at a banquet are always interspersed with less imposing choices: “If the dishes are all equally striking, none of them will make much impression, will they?”
Years ago, when I dined with the Sichuanese chef Yu Bo at El Bulli in northern Spain, then the most avant-garde restaurant in the world, he was amazed that, even there, the dishes were clumped so that all the seafood came first, followed by the meat and game and finally all the sweet dishes. In Chinese terms, this was a lost opportunity to split up blocks of similar ingredients and weave them among each other.
China is a particularly food-focused culture, which is reflected in an attention to the infinite possibilities of cooking. Furthermore, in Chinese gastronomy, pleasure and health have always been intimately related. A good repast is not simply about thrilling tastes, but about physical wellbeing.
I went to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant once with a Malaysian Chinese friend. It was a fabulous meal: delicious, mind-bogglingly imaginative and great fun. But afterwards, as we collapsed into a sugar coma following several stunning desserts, she remarked on how the last few dishes had all been rich, sweet and heavy.
“With a Chinese banquet,” she said, “even if you have 40 dishes, you will finish with a light soup or fresh fruit, so you go home feeling shufu [well or comfortable] and have a good night’s sleep.”
Often, with the most acclaimed western food, gustatory pleasure seems to be the sole consideration, while health and balance are ignored. Fashionable consumption oscillates violently between gout-inducing excess and penitential restraint: a gluttonous steak béarnaise with thrice-cooked chips and chocolate fondant one day, a rabbit-worthy raw kale and quinoa salad the next. In China, you can combine your gastronomic indulgence and its antidote in a single meal.
A fine Chinese meal is like a musical composition, with its peaks and lulls, its light and shade, its gentle melodies and rousing rhythm
Because of this, many Chinese dishes are plain and understated. In Mandarin, the word for such dishes is qingdan, a combination of two characters meaning “clear, quiet, pure or honest” and “light, weak, pale”. Qingdan is usually translated into English as “bland” or “insipid”, which sounds boring: who would order an “insipid” dish?
Most westerners in Chinese restaurants avoid lighter dishes because they appear dull in comparison with the razzle-dazzle of chilli oil, sweet-and-sour sauces and deep-fried dumplings. They are, but that’s the point.
One of the great ironies of western attitudes towards Chinese food is that westerners typically order all the sweet-and-sour, salty and deep-fried dishes on Chinese menus and then complain that Chinese food is unhealthy and makes them feel “bloated and icky” the next day.
One sure-fire way of telling when a Chinese restaurant is aimed mainly at westerners is the absence of plain dishes on the menu and an emphasis on sexy, umami-loaded fare.
Arranging a good Chinese menu requires forethought. With regard to quantities, reckon on one main dish per person and one extra for the table, plus rice or noodles and any starters you fancy.
For best results, try to avoid duplicating main ingredients: include a selection of different meats, seafoods, tofu and vegetables. To balance the aromatic dryness of pan-fried or deep-fried dishes, order a broth or something else with plenty of liquid.
Think of including boiled, stewed or steamed dishes as well as stir-fries. Lightly flavoured vegetables will refresh the palate after the intensity of a “red-braised” dish in an opulent, soy-dark gravy or something spicy.
Don’t order more than one sweet-and-sour or black bean sauce. If the main ingredient in one dish is cut into fine slivers, perhaps the next can be cut into chunks. Look kindly on the thin refreshing broths and simple greens — while unsensational on their own, they will set off the more arresting flavours.
Even the simplest meal can be a balance of contrasting elements: plain rice, a well-flavoured dish of meat and vegetables, a palate-cleansing broth (perhaps as basic as the water used for parboiling rice) and a small dish of pungent pickles. A banquet can include a dazzling assortment of dishes.
In the past, non-Chinese speakers were handicapped by the language barrier and catastrophic menu translations. These days, the fashion for photographic menus has made ordering much easier, because you can see roughly what a dish will look like: dry or wet; spicy or mild; chilli-red, soy-dark or fresh green; hefty or delicate.
Of course, ordering is an art, and honing your skills takes time and experience. However, simply by taking into account those twin principles of balance and variety, it’s possible to construct menus that will be much more delightful, and leave you and your guests feeling more shufu than a free-for-all.
I’m only half-joking when I say that having learnt to order well in Chinese restaurants is one of my proudest achievements. When I’m planning a Chinese menu for a dinner party or in a restaurant, my first consideration is the guests: who are they and what will they like?
Will they be longing for adventure or exhausted and in search of comfort? Will they lean towards rich, dramatic flavours or a lighter palette of tastes? Are they Chinese or not? (Some elements, like a light soup, are more important for Chinese palates.) If we’re in China, I’ll consider any local specialities and also the time of year — and probably ask a waiter if there are any seasonal dishes on offer.
I’ll usually jot down a shortlist of possible dishes and conjure up their flavours in my mind, trying to imagine how they will all work together. Then I’ll strike off those that risk duplication, and add others if I feel a contrasting note is required.
If I don’t know the restaurant and am ordering for a large group, I will often try to arrive about an hour before my guests so I can read the usually long menu and take my time. If I arrive at the same time as everyone else, my friends usually order some drinks, chuck the menu at me and know I’ll ignore them until I’m ready.
When I’m leading a food tour of China, it’s more challenging because I want new, fascinating flavours and culinary themes to unfold at every meal, with negligible repetition: the gastronomic equivalent of composing Wagner’s Ring cycle. My hope is that everyone will find the food endlessly wonderful without noticing the effort that went into planning it.
I recognise that most people won’t be as obsessed with Chinese food as I am. But it’s worth remembering that putting a little more thought into ordering can transform your experience of Chinese eating.
I’ve never forgotten how a friend went to dinner at one of my favourite Shanghainese restaurants and wasn’t impressed because he’d found the food all rather brown and heavy.
I insisted on taking him right back there, and was careful to balance the darkly intense, delicious “red-cooked” dishes for which Shanghai is renowned with lighter, more delicate flavours. He totally revised his opinion, as I’d expected. One restaurant, one diner, two polarised views: it’s all in the ordering.
The ideal menu
There is no single way to construct a Chinese feast, but this is a simple example of a balanced meal for five to six people, including dishes you might find in a typical Cantonese restaurant.
- Soup of the day
Good Cantonese restaurants typically offer a clear, slow-simmered broth made from meat or poultry with vegetables or medicinal ingredients. Light, refreshing and nourishing.
- Deep-fried calamari with garlic and chilli
Dry and fragrant, deep-fried, main ingredient seafood.
- Honeyed char siu pork
Deep reddish colour, barbecued, intense sweet-savoury flavour, syrupy glaze but no sauce, main ingredient pork.
- Whole steamed sea bass with ginger and spring onion
Light steamed dish with a succulent mouthfeel and juicy sauce, main ingredient fish.
- Mapo tofu
Spicy dish, soft mouthfeel, braised dish, plenty of richly flavoured sauce, main ingredient tofu, orange-coloured oil.
- Stir-fried Chinese broccoli (gai lan) with ginger
Refreshing bright green colour, stir-fried dish, brisk crunchy mouthfeel.
- Plain steamed rice
Fuchsia Dunlop’s latest book “The Food of Sichuan” will be published by Bloomsbury on October 3
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