Advanced Wine and another dinner

We are about one-third the way through the Advanced Wine Course.  Teaching a group of Chinese students how to pronounce German and Italian wine terms, when you are instructing in a third language – English – is an interesting experience for everybody. It usually means I lecture for 2 or 3 slides and then Dr. Lim translates it into Mandarin. If it is not too complex then I lecture for longer and Dr. Lim translates key components when we take breaks.

It will be considerably easier on the Chinese students when Dr. Lim has the opportunity to translate everything into Mandarin. He is doing the translation very carefully, because each Chinese character can have 5 or more meanings.  The context of the sentence often determines the meaning of the word.  He is consulting with some Mandarin experts to make sure he is creating an accurate translation because the IWG/HWCC translation may become the standard for China.

Chinese is written with characters, which are known as ?? [??] (hànzi). The characters were originally pictures of people, animals or other things, but over the centuries they have become increasingly stylized and no longer resemble the things they represent. Many characters have been combined with others to create new ones.

There are more than 23,000 actively used Chinese characters, given the multiple meaning of each of these characters; they represent over 120,000 words in Chinese.  This is about as close as any language comes to English – which has a vocabulary of about 200,000 words.  However, most Chinese, like most people that speak English, use a vocabulary of about 1,500 words (or characters).

What do words we know look like in Chinese?  Picture 1 is the list of 5 Grand Cru Chateau of the Médoc and Graves from the 1855 (and 1973 update) Classification listed in Chinese. Can you guess which is which?

Almost every restaurant we went into had a menu that showed pictures of each dish, or certainly the ‘specialty’ dishes of the house.  I took some photographs of the menu at this restaurant and a sample of them is shown in pictures 2, 3 and 4.

Dr. Lim picked the following dishes for dinner:

(1) fresh cucumber in vinegar and sesame oil (picture 5);
(2) pickled mustard plant (picture 6);
(3) sweet and sour chicken (picture7);
(4) spicy boiled river prawns (picture 8);
(5) steamed Gui (pronounced ‘Jui’) fish soup, with fish heart and liver, pork and vegetables in a fish and soy stock (picture 9); and
(6) steamed spinach with diced ham, garlic, duck egg, and with diced ‘ancient’ (duck) egg (picture 10).

Although all of the diners might confer, it is not unusual for just one member of a party to order for the entire group.  This makes sense when you consider the fact that all dishes are eaten communally.  With the possible exception of rice, no one orders a dish that only they will be eating.  Everything is eaten communally.

Fresh cucumber in vinegar and sesame oil is a classic cold appetizer. Light and refreshing, it has a very light touch of sesame oil to offset the vinegar. In the US I have seen this dish usually sliced across the cucumber so the pieces are round and the skin is not removed. I could not find out if this preparation or the preparation I am more familiar with is the most common here in China, both fabrication techniques seem to be used. The dish is shown in picture 5.

Pickled mustard plant, shown in picture 6, was the second appetizer dish. It was a nice combination of vinegar from the pickling and slightly spicy from the natural flavor of the mustard plant. This was also a cold dish, very crunchy as well.

The black and red can in the background of this picture was ‘herbal tea.’  Although it had a hint of licorice it was basically a can of sweet green tea – apparently sugar is considered an ‘herb’ in China.  It was chilled and a nice shift from all of the hot green tea we had been drinking.

Although these two dishes were ‘appetizers’ that does not mean they were served first.  Chinese food is served as it is cooked, so the dishes come out in no particular order.  Your table might get a couple of dishes, then dishes go to other tables, and then a couple of more for your table.  This continues until all the dishes you have order have arrived.  They all might be brought to the table within 5 minutes, or it might take up to 30 minutes, or more.

A copy of your order is left on the table and the food runners check off each dish when they bring it to the table.  Customers will check the order sheet to see what dishes are still to come.

Rice is traditionally served last, if it is ordered at all.  Of course, everybody in a group begins eating as soon as the first dish arrives.  Taking bites from each new dish as they are brought to the table and are still hot (or cold).

Sweet and sour chicken, picture 7, is the first main dish I have been served that is also commonly served in the US.  However, the preparation was far more complex that what I have had in the US.  The chicken was cooked twice: first it was baked, then de-boned, and then cut into small pieces, about 1”x1.” Next it was deep fat fried (flash fried really) to create a thin crust on the outside of each piece.  There was no breading.

Each bite was a combination of crunchy and tender textures that created a very nice taste contrast.  The sweet and sour sauce was neither as sweet nor as sour as the same sauce served in the US.  It was also a much darker color.  Probably the best sweet and sour chicken I have ever eaten. I was told that this was a dish that most ‘westerners’ liked – I would agree.

Spicy boiled river prawns with scallions was a dish we have had variations of in previous meals I have written about.  See picture 8. Slightly spicy you eat the sweet flavored prawns as I have discussed in previous blogs: bite the head off, bite the legs off (if you don’t want to eat them) and then suck the meat out of the remaining shell.  Each diner creating a pile of shells and heads on their plate or the table in front of them as they consume bites of prawn.

The specialty of this restaurant is the steamed Gui fish soup, with fish heart and liver, pork and vegetables in a fish and soy stock.  Our dish is shown in picture 9, the dish is also pictured at the top of the page of the menu shown in picture 2.

At least one soup dish is served with most dinners; sometimes 2 or 3 are part of the same meal. It really depends upon the specialty of the restaurant and what you want to eat. However, every meal I have had included a soup bowl as part of the customer’s set-up whether you are going to eat a soup or not.  This is because the soup bowl actually has several purposes, it can be used for rice or soup, a place to rest large bites from serving dishes if you do not have a plate; even a place to put bones and other bits you spit out while you are dining.

Each person can ladle their own soup or the ‘host’ (or hostess) can ladle the soup for each diner – actually serving each diner.  This allows the host to parcel out the ‘best’ pieces to the special guest.  Which explains how I ended up with the heart and a piece of fish liver as the ‘special guest.’ It would be easy as an American to assume that they were giving me the pieces they didn’t want to eat but this is not the case.

Long before we arrived at the restaurant, Dr. Lim had talked about this dish, and what were the best pieces to eat.  It is a big mistake, traveling anywhere in the world, to assume that how your culture views eating specific items is the same as how other cultures view it.

In a fish dish like this one, the fish is served whole; you can see the head and tail in the picture. If the head has been larger it would have been removed because it is often served as a separate dish.  Fish head dishes are a specialty of Hangzhou and can be very expensive.

This is a freshwater fish, very mild, with fairly firm texture and a slightly sweet taste.  One of the reasons this is a popular dish is because the Gui fish does not have many small bones. Picking out small bones from a piece of fish is as difficult as it sounds when you are using chopsticks to pick out the bones.

To remove bones you would place a bite of fish in your soupspoon and tug on the bones with your chopsticks.  When you removed a bone you would place it on your plate (or the table in a less fancy restaurant). After removing the bones you would eat the bite directly from the spoon.  Then you could scoop another piece of fish out of your soup bowl with the spoon and repeat the process. 

If you see a particularly nice looking bite in the serving bowl you could use your chopsticks to grab it instead of taking a bite out of your soup bowl.  You did not have to wait for your soup bowl to be empty to get more from the serving bowl.

If you had a really big piece of fish or a piece with large bones you would place the piece on your plate, pin it down with the spoon in your left hand, and pull the bones out with your chopsticks. Since the piece of fish is not in the soupspoon if you perform this procedure you would pick up small pieces of fish with your chopsticks to eat rather than put them in your soupspoon.  Chinese eating etiquette is much more complex than I had imagined or previously learned back in the States.

The fish heart is about the size of the first joint of your thumb and tastes like a piece of muscle – which it is.  Actually, very little taste but considered a ‘special’ piece because there is only one heart in the entire dish.  Liver is liver, and fish liver can be a strong flavor; in this case a little overcooked because it had been in the pot a long time.

The last dish, shown in picture 10 was the steamed spinach with diced ham, garlic, duck egg, and diced ‘ancient’ (duck) eggs.

This was a very light dish compared to some of the other ones served in this dinner.  The base was a vegetable stock, with a little bit of pork stock added, making it slightly salty.  The spinach was steamed to just the right temperature and the pork pieces made an interesting color contrast compared to the spinach.  The white pieces in the picture are either garlic or pieces of duck egg.  The ‘ancient’ egg is difficult to pick out – they were dark gray to black in color.

The stock/sauce with this dish was light enough that you could easily taste each component of the dish. 

To eat this dish you pick up the 3”-4” long pieces of spinach with your chopsticks and eat them (in one bite if possible) then pick up individual pieces of pork, garlic, egg and ancient egg to add to your mouth while chewing the spinach.

At the end of a meal it is customary to leave a few bites on your plate (or in a bowl). To ‘clean your plate’ implies you did not get enough to eat and the host will then feel obliged to order another dish or two so as not to lose face with the guest. Always leave a few bites on your plate - even if there is food still in the serving bowls and dishes.

The Chateau answer:(a) Margaux, (b) Lafite, (c) Latour, (d) Mouton, (e) Haut-Brion.

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