Shandong Dining & Etiquette
In China, food etiquette is extremely diverse, and for the first time, I received a dining etiquette lesson during a banquet dinner from my mother’s medical school classmates. I naively went to dinner at Jinan’s most famous restaurant for Shandong delicacies, Luxinan Flavor Restaurant. My mom’s friend explained to me (and subsequently tested me on) the four characteristics of 鲁菜 (Lu cai), or Shandong food:
- 黑呼呼 (Hei hu hu): soy sauce
- 油呼呼 (You hu hu): oily
- 咸呼呼(Xian hu hu): salty
- 粘呼呼 (Nian hu hu): sticky
These are the “four 呼 (hu)’s” (hu meaning “a bit”), and every Shandong dish should have at least two of these characteristics.
Ironically, we started off with a very nontraditional dish: salad (Figure 1). I was a bit wary of eating it since I already had some serious food poisoning earlier in the day. So I didn’t even touch it, although it looked very enticing.
At this point, we all started drinking – some red wine for the women (Figure 2) and some bai jiu (which is basically like drinking ethanol) for the men. The Shandong people have some rules that come with drinking at the dinner table, but perhaps I should begin with the seating.
In a banquet room, there is normally a round table at which the main host should sit directly facing the door. The person directly across from him/her should be the other host (the wife, daughter, etc.). The person to the right of the main host should be the main guest and the person to the left is the next major guest. Everyone else is pretty much there for a good time. However, if the chairs are moved over just a bit so that no one is facing the door directly, then everyone is considered equal.
During a Shandong banquet, there are 7 major toasts that involve the entire table. The first three are given by the major host while the second three are given by the other host. At the end of the 6th, the glass has to be emptied (one can keep adding wine into the glass throughout the six toasts). The final one is given by the main guest, and after this one, everyone is supposed to pack up their bags and leave.
Well, when we sat down, I was seated across from the main host so that I could sit next to his daughter. And that meant I had to come up with three original toasts that the major host had not said already. Luckily, I’m quite the creative person. My mother was the guest of honor and was told that she had better not toast the entire table or else we would have to pack up and leave without finishing the meal! Instead, she was allowed to just drink her wine or toast others one on one throughout the dinner.
Now back to the food. After the first toast, a plate of what looked like turds was brought up (Figure 3), but this actually turned out to be my favorite dish of the night! It was slightly sweet, and the texture is a bit sticky – I ate so many of them!
Then the waiter brought up a plate of stir-fried bamboo with pork kidneys (Figure 4), a dish that the Shandong province is known for. This dish really encompassed the four characteristics, with a sauce that is a bit sticky, a bit salty, a bit oily and based on soy sauce! The flavors mixed perfectly, and the kidneys came apart so easily when I chewed on it.
And to my delight, there were baby lamb chops (Figure 5). Since I have not had lamb for over a week, I was extremely excited! They were flawlessly seasoned with basil and salt, not to mention the layer of crispiness on the outside.
Of course we had to get at least one healthy item, so then came the gailan (Chinese broccoli) (Figure 6). This was the usual, stir-fried to perfection.
Next came another Shandong delicacy: pork intestines (Figure 7). The seasoning and colors of the dish was just in time for summer, with a mix of red, green and yellow. However, I must say that biting into the intestines, chicken came into mind.
Since there was a little girl at the table, we ordered fried potatoes for her (Figure 8). These were a lot smaller and more flavorful than I expected.
Going along with the organ theme, a plate of pork colon and cucumbers were brought in (Figure 9). As I took a piece of colon and cucumber to pair together, I just took it for granted that they washed the colon thoroughly… What I don’t see, I don’t know, right? In any case, this pairing was fabulous! The colon had the texture of octopus, and covering the cucumber in the sticky, oily, salty, soy-based sauce was a guilty pleasure.
And then we were each brought a bowl of sea cucumber, another Shandong delicacy (Figure 10). I have had this numerous times throughout China already, but it definitely tastes the best when it comes from the origin with the four characteristics. If you haven’t had sea cucumber before, the texture is a bit gelatin-like, and without a sauce, it is quite bland. The soupy sauce it was in complemented the contents impeccably. What really surprised me in this dish, though, is the light-colored item that looks like a slug in the picture. It basically tasted like a sea cucumber, but after asking the waiter, it turned out to be chicken kidney!
So all the organ meats aside, we had a couple other traditional Shandong foods (I know, it’s been a lot already). The corn here is not the crispy, sweet, corn on the cob type corn we normally have (Figure 11). Instead, it is extremely soft and a lot less sweet. I was not the biggest fan of this dish, but I had many others to enjoy.
Such as the deep fried fish (Figure 12). This looked and tasted absolutely phenomenal! After the waitress cut it for us (Figure 13), we dug into the fish to find that under this deep-fried crispiness, there was the most tender meat doused in a sticky and semi-sweet yet salty sauce. Wow. I could not stop stuffing myself!
To help digest, we each received a bowl of lamb soup (Figure 14), in which we could add a combination of condiments, from hot sauce to pepper to salt. In my opinion, though, the original soup was already flavorful enough to have on its own.
Finally, to top it off, we had the famous shao bing (Figure 15) and zha cai (pickled vegetables) (Figure 16). You are supposed to eat the shao bing right when it is served so that it is still crispy. It is split in half and stuffed with the zha cai for flavor. This was definitely the way to almost end a wonderful meal filled with delicious foods and playful etiquette lessons.
And my mom was finally able to thank all her friends with a toast at the end!
- I know half the foods here are items that many people wouldn’t even think of eating or would be afraid to try. But my philosophy with food is to try it no matter what it is, learn about it, and then decide whether or not you like it!
- Knowing where to sit at a dining table is extremely important, at least in Chinese culture. Although most people are not extremely strict with seating these days, the most important people or the most elderly are still the ones who should sit on the very inside of the room or table (away from but facing the door).