Navigating Tradition and Logistics to Increase Odds of Getting Hot and Tasty Food

As a Chinese-American, I’ve been to my fair share of Chinese banquet meals.  Whether it’s after a wedding or funeral, for a birthday, or part of a Chinese New Year’s celebration, the typical event has several circular tables with ten seats across a room.  In the middle of each table, there is a Lazy Susan.  If you’re unfamiliar with this device, it’s a giant circle with ball-bearings in the middle of the table.  It allows the guests to move the dishes around the table so everyone can get to it.  Several courses of food come from the kitchen and are placed on that efficient tabletop for the guests to take their portion of each dish onto their own plates.

There is usually a stage area at events like this.  The best seat at the table to view the central event is the opposite side of the table from the stage because you’re facing the action.  However, the best seat is usually reserved for the most important person at the table.  This is usually the oldest person.  This person should not only always be respected, but he or she is also your marker for selecting your seat.

If you enjoy food as much as I do, and you know a particular banquet has some quality eats, then where you sit at the table will determine a few things for you: how much food you get and how hot it will be when it lands on your plate.

This is a typical banquet seating arrangement.

Guest of Honor (Bright Green)

If you are the “guest of honor” at your table (ie. it’s your wedding or birthday, or you’re the oldest person at the table), you can sit anywhere you want, including the spot that gives you the best view of the festivities.  You will always get your food first, and you can take as much as you want.  It doesn’t matter where on the table a dish is set down; the other people at the table should bring that dish in front of you and likely, put some of it on your plate.  I’m super jealous of you because I am essentially never this person.

Older People (Dark Green)

If you know you are one of the oldest people at your table, sit next to the guest of honor.  You will also get served early because the rest of the table will make sure you get served immediately after him/her.  You have lived a long life.  You deserve a hot meal.

Children (Small People)

If there are at least two children at your table, you really have absolutely nothing to worry about.  The amount of food coming is designed for ten adults.  Because kids have much smaller stomachs and appetites than grown humans, there will be plenty of food available, and it will most likely be hot when you get it.  The one thing you might be concerned about is if your favorite courses are things kids like (even worse if their parents let them do whatever they want).  This happens to me from time to time, but more on that later.

Kid at the table? Virtually unlimited noodles.

Lazy Susan Direction

Here’s where the rest of the guests play the game… or maybe it’s just me.  While I don’t believe there is an official direction a Lazy Susan rotates, in my experience, it rotates counter-clockwise.  I have a theory about why this is.  It’s easier to control a Lazy Susan by pulling than it is by pushing, and most people in this world are right-handed.  Counter-clockwise is the pull direction for righties.  Given this knowledge, the best odds for getting served earlier in the rotation are by sitting to the right of the guest of honor, unless…

There is a chance of a dominant left-handed person at your table that might make the food travel in the clockwise direction.  That’s where choosing a seat just to the right of the guest of honor becomes a risk.  If there is any doubt in your mind about the spinning direction and food is your primary concern, grab the seat directly across from the GOH.  That way you are hedging your bets in either direction, and you will certainly not be last.  This will definitely be one of the worst views of the event, but hey, wedding party, shmedding shmarty, we’re here for food, am I right?!  😉

If you don’t mind being a helpful person, the position to the right of the guest of honor and the other older people can be very advantageous here.  As someone that’s younger, it’s your duty to help serve your elders.  Your respectfulness can be rewarded two-fold:  You look like a saint serving him or her, but you can also take control of the Lazy Susan direction and serve yourself as well.  Win-win!

The cold platter is the first thing to arrive on your table.

Knowing The Other Players

Often in these scenarios, you know the other guests at the table.  You might even know them too well as they’re probably related to you.  This intimate knowledge of them can be vitally important to your seating choice.  For example, let’s say you noticed that a family member has a tendency to take too much during their turn.  You want to be in a position at the table in front of them.  This is doubly true if they like the same things you like.  I will neither confirm nor deny someone in my family made me think of this.

Soup’s on! Nine others at your table to consider.

Favorite Dishes

For me, when it comes to Chinese-American banquet food, I definitely have my favorite dishes.

  • The savory and sweet qualities of honey walnut prawns make it one of my all-time favorite things to eat.  I’m not the only one, and you’ll find a fairly limited quantity of prawns in a serving.  I am serious when I say I could easily eat half the table’s portions.
  • Peking duck, with its crispy skin and smoky meat, scallions and plum sauce, all wrapped in a steamed bun, is something I truly look forward to at these events.
  • Finally, near the end of the meal, when you feel a little full, a flaky, tender steamed fish arrives, and you cannot stop yourself from having some of it.

Honey walnut prawns, a gift from the gods

Earlier when I talked about children, I mentioned liking something kids like; I was thinking about Peking duck.  To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about the duck itself.  There are ten steamed buns that come with that dish, exactly one per person, and kids love them!   Given the limited number, it can be a little annoying when a parent gives their offspring more than one, especially when the little turds don’t eat anything else.

Timing

The most important thing is to get to your table so you have a choice in the first place.  I’ve fallen victim to being late to choose my seat before, and you definitely don’t get what you want.  You can even end up separated from your spouse, which is disappointing.  If you are first to the table, it’s up to you to make sure the honored ones get their correct seats, but after that, you get to choose your seat.  If you are not first, use your best judgment, given what you now know.

what a beautiful and delicious piece of fish!

Be Respectful

While the observations I’m pointing out are relatively self-serving, you still want to be respectful to the others at your table.  When the dish comes around to you, don’t be a pig.  If you take too much, it’s rude.  Don’t be that guy.  Get yours while still considering the portioning for the rest of the guests.  The chances are if you are situated in an early position in the rotation, you’ll get an opportunity to have seconds, except with the steamed buns (seriously, no guarantees there).

Food For Thought

I know I’ve turned this into a big game, but honestly, Chinese banquets are the epitome of what I love about food.  A shared experience of truly epic proportions, course after course arrive at the table.  Everyone’s eyes light up.  When the guests get full, more food arrives.  It’s truly excessive.  Finally, you’re among people you care about.  These events bring us all together, and we talk about how our lives are going.  If it’s among strangers, you talk about how awesome it would be if someone made a KFC-style bucket with salt and pepper pork chops instead of fried chicken.  The communal table, the spectacle of the grand meal, and the conversation all come together to create such brilliant food experiences worth having… as long as I fill my belly with those sweet, sweet prawns and walnuts.


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