An official banquet

An official banquet in China is quite an experience. There is the round table with its Lazy Susan which is slowly loaded with more food than you think you can eat. The featured photo shows a small selection of a banquet. There is the amazing sweet and sour Mandarin fish; amazing for its knife work, the way the fish seems to grow quills as it is cooked. The duck-shaped dish above it contains slices of Peking duck, served with chapatis (yes, that is a more appropriate translation than pancake) and plum sauce. You can also see a wonderful mushroom called black fungus and an interesting dish of pork lung in chili sauce.

Niece Mbili looked at the photo of the menu (above) and asked “Which ones did you order?” She was blown off her feet when I explained that you don’t choose. Everything on the menu eventually arrives at the table, the dinner continues for several hours, and a lot of baijiu drunk during the dinner. I rather like the sweet pumpkin stuffing that you get in China.

Peking duck

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Peking duck is available in some form or the other all over the world. Everywhere outside of China it comes in thin slices with pancakes and plum sauce. You learn to douse the slices of duck in the sauce and then lay it on the pancake, roll it up, and then eat it.

In Beijing we went to eat duck at the famous Quanjude restaurant. This is famous as Zhou Enlai’s favourite restaurant, not only one which he protected during the cultural revolution, but as one which thrived in this period. Today it is always full. There is a half hour waiting time if you arrive without a reservation. We have been there thrice in three weeks to eat Peking duck, twice with Chinese hosts, once by ourselves.

Peking duck in Beijing is an experience. The first thing which arrives on the table is a plate of the crisp fried skin from the breast of the duck. You roll this in sugar and eat it. Each little piece melts slowly in your mouth, releasing the sugar and the fat. Meanwhile the baskets of pancakes have been placed on the table. Soon the slices of duck arrive. This is the part of the Peking duck with which is familiar outside China.

As you eat the pancake rolls, the next part of the duck arrives: the brain (photo above). This is the only part which is not cut up into pieces which are easy to take up with chopsticks. This makes me think that traditionally this would not have been eaten. Meanwhile you could have ordered liver. This will be thinly sliced, and delicious, as you might expect if you have eaten foie gras. Another delicacy is the stomach lining: also thinly sliced, crackly and interestingly flavoured.

Finally, the rest of the duck arrives as a soup. I liked this the first time I had it, but the next times less so. On thinking back it seems to me that the difference was a little extra I had the first time: a plate of thinly sliced pears and cucumbers. This was a lovely palate cleanser which wiped the memory of fatty duck from your tongue, enabling you to enjoy the fatty taste of the duck. No wonder that traditional Chinese medical practice is so concerned with the state of your liver.