by Chalerm Raksanti
Some people eat to live. Others live to eat. The love
of good food and of congenial company in which to enjoy it has been around
ever since man first discovered that eating was not just a necessity but
could be a pleasure. The banquets of the Egyptians and ancient Greeks have
been immortalized in tomb paintings and mosaics, while the orgies of Rome
(where exotic items like pheasant brains, flamingo tongues and dormice
dipped in honey were offered) and the gargantuan feasts of medieval Europe
have also gone down in history. But the art of banqueting, of ceremonial
entertaining with the finest of foods, was refined to the highest possible
degree by the Chinese.
That the Chinese have held food in the highest respect
for centuries is undisputable. Even the great sage Confucius wrote on food
more than two thousand years ago and countless writers and poets since
that time have extolled the pleasures of wining and dining.
bride and her aunt watch over the wedding feast at the groom’s house.
The bride’s parents do not accompany her.
When greeting each other, the Chinese don’t say
“How do you do?” but ask, “Have you eaten rice yet?” Even the
spirits are known to appreciate food and drink. During the month-long
Festival of the Hungry Ghosts trestle tables laden with food and drink are
placed inside markets or along the streets so that any passing spirits may
enjoy the feast and, thus appeased, refrain from causing mischief.
Perhaps the Chinese reverence for food is partly
because of the harsh conditions of a land where the threat of famine was
always a reality until recently. Even rich Chinese now living in other
parts of the world never forgot the necessity for food. Most of these
people are descended from immigrants who left China in order to be able to
make a living, or, as the Chinese would say, “fill their rice bowl”.
When wishing to honor an important person or to
celebrate an auspicious occasion, the Chinese hold a banquet. In bygone
days, if the host was very rich and possessed a suitable home, he might
entertain in his own residence, although it was more common for him to
hold the banquet in a restaurant. Friar Odoric, a monk who visited China
during the 14th century, reported that “there is a custom - that if
anyone desires to give a great dinner or entertainment for his friends, he
goes to one of the hostels which are established for this purpose and
saith to the host therein; make me a dinner for this very purpose and to
expend such and such a sum on it. Then the host does exactly as ordered
and the guests are better served than they would have been in the
gentleman’s own home.”
proud Singaporean fruit seller’s cart is loaded with an exotic selection
of tropical fruit.
The banquet halls of old China must have been, from all
accounts, most magnificent. Even more lovely and a popular theme for
Chinese painters in the Sung and Ming Dynasty, were dinners held out of
doors on calm summer evenings or given on boats in a lake.
The ritual of a formal Chinese banquet was very
elaborate. Not surprisingly, only a few of these rituals are observed
today. Who, one wonders, would bother going through the following routine
before commencing a feast? The master of ceremony bows to the guest of
honor and conducts him to a place on the east side of the hall not far
from, but opposite to where the host is standing. The host bows to the
guest, who bows in return. The host ascends the hall up to the dinner
table and bows to the empty chair on which the guest is to sit. The guest,
now facing the host, will bow in return. The host, with a bow, raises the
wine cup to be used by the guest who bows again. The guest is then
conducted to his seat.
What sort of occasion can prompt a Chinese banquet
today and just how many of the old traditions are still followed? Perhaps
the most common occasion for a banquet is the wedding dinner which is
mandatory for every new couple. Here is a chance for the father to show
all his friends, relatives and business associates how successful he is by
the sumptuousness of the meal. The honoring of an important visitor, a
wedding anniversary, a staff dinner to celebrate the New Year, the
birthday of an elderly relative - all these are common reasons for a