Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Chinese Feasts

on May 26, 2014

For the next month or two, I learned about Chinese feasts, hands on, or rather, palate and stomach on.

All of Mama and Papa’s friends and relatives started inviting us for welcome-home dinners. The first few we went to, I didn’t know what to expect. After the first round of three or four dishes, I would be too full and could only eat one or two mouthfuls from all remaining dishes. But before long, I got the hang of it. This is how to survive Chinese feasts:

There are at least three or four rounds of dishes served. Every round consists of three or more dishes of a similar type.

 

sliced lu beef shanks

sliced lu beef shanks

jelly fish and cucumber salad

jelly fish and cucumber salad

The first round always consists of cold dishes, such as “lu” sliced beef shanks, jelly fish salad, or seasoned seaweed. Next would come hot main dishes, at least two rounds of them. These varied from stir-fried, deep-fried to stew-type or gravy-type dishes. To be complete these should include at least the four categories of fowl, shrimp, fish and meat. Seafood being the most expensive items on the menu, prawns and crab were a must if the host meant to show sincerity. Alternatives would be sea cucumbers (at the time, I found them totally gross and disgusting), scallops or octopus.  Finally there would be served at least one or two rounds of rice, noodles or soups. These are traditionally served last because they are very filling. If soup were served first, the way it is done in Western meals, it would signify that the host is trying to fill you up with liquid so he doesn’t have to cook too much real food for you.  Finally there would be the dessert round, which often included a hot sweet soup of silver ears (white fungus), Chinese dates, lotus seeds and other such delicacies.

sea cucumbers

sea cucumbers

So, you may only eat one mouthful of everything, that is, if you intend to taste everything. Otherwise, you will end up only eating from a few dishes.

This was my first introduction to Chinese gourmet feasts. So far, as a child, I had been assigned either to the baby-sitting group, or to the performance crew at international and diplomatic functions. Uncle Lung and Aunt Lily had done their entertaining at restaurants, not including us, and very rarely at home, for just one family at a time. It was at these dinner parties that I first tasted bird’s nest soup (a sweet dessert) and shark’s fin soup (a savory delicacy).

shark's fin soup

It was also as a result of these dinner parties that I discovered I would end the evening with a severe shoulder and neck ache. It is the Chinese tradition that the younger generation be meek and humble when facing the elder generation. To show your humility, you need to sort of slightly bow your shoulders and head when talking to them. When you do that for a few hours a night, and a few nights a week, you end up with aches and pains.

That’s how I discovered that I had not grown up properly respecting Chinese elders all day long. How else was I so unaccustomed to the stooping posture?

I also found out what a large network of intersecting communities we were part of. First, there was, of course, Mama’s family. The majority lived in the central part of Taiwan, in Taichung or the surrounding areas. Only Second Uncle lived in Taipei because he was then studying Dentistry at the Veterans’ Hospital where he boarded as well. On the weekends, he would come and stay with us and bring his girlfriend along. Mama disliked his girlfriend because she would “put one leg on top of the other” (meaning, cross her legs), and comfortably proceed to eat watermelon seeds non-stop and drink tea and never stand up to help Mama. That showed no respect for elders (Mama was the eldest sister, and Second Uncle ranked number six), no knowledge of her own position, no manners and no assiduity to work. Mama managed to talk Second Uncle out of this relationship, even if she was a nursing student. We missed the trips to the ice-cream parlor as “light bulbs” (chaperones) but we did not miss the young lady, who never paid us much attention. Eventually, Mama matchmaked him with the daughter of a diplomat friend of Papa’s. She had studied fashion design in Japan, was well-mannered and very dainty and good-looking. I am happy to report that the matchmaking worked and the marriage was happy. She has been my aunt now for many years and produced two great cousins for us.

watermelon seeds snacks

watermelon seeds snacks

Mama had not just seven brothers and sisters, but also cousins, aunts and uncles galore. I could not keep track of who was who.  We even went once to a small town in central Taiwan to visit relatives who all spoke Taiwanese, so I felt totally like an outsider. There was a withered, weathered and wrinkled old lady sitting on a high bench, her feet curled up and her hand feeding her mouth with betel nuts. Mama introduced me and instructed me to call her “Ah-Zou”, or great-grandma. I looked down at her fabric shoes on the floor. They were TINY! Like for a five-year-old girl, but higher in thickness than normal shoes. Mama signed to me to keep quiet. After we were out of earshot, she explained that Ah-Zou had bound feet, Golden Lotuses. O-M-G!!! So they did exist?

Bound feet such as my great-grandmother had: golden lotuses

Bound feet such as my great-grandmother had: golden lotuses

Then there were Papa’s relatives. Pretty much, that was just one family, of the surname Shi (Rock). I understood that his first wife was Papa’s cousin in some degree or other, however she had passed away and he had remarried. He was Muslim, of course, but the wife was Buddhist. The children, having attended Christian schools, were all Protestants. Uncle Shi worked with the police or some related branch, and occupied a rather high position. Sometimes, we would get rides in his car, driven by a chauffeur in police or military uniform, I wasn’t quite sure which.

There was one other relative, whom Papa had discovered at the mosque. We called him Great-Uncle Mai. When Papa first met him and found out they shared the same surname –which by the way is a rare one, even among Chinese Muslims–  the two of them embarked on a conversation researching their mutual ancestors. Based solely on the generation characters, they were able to work out that Papa was one generation younger and therefore called him thereafter “Uncle”. He actually lived in HongKong, where his family still resided. However, since his business took him often to Taipei, he kept a home in Taipei as well. Although he had studied at an Islamic college, and was therefore qualified to be imam, he had chosen to become a businessman. His Islamic training had included the Sini style of Arabic calligraphy, so he would occasionally write beautiful scrolls and banners and donate them right and left. We had one framed and hanging in our living room.

Arabic calligraphy written in the Chinese brush style

Arabic calligraphy written in the Chinese brush style

 

 

 


One Response to “Chinese Feasts”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    I never quite figured out the reason why our distant relative, great-uncle Mai, lived partly in Taiwan, yet also maintained his family in Hong Kong.

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