Eating and Drinking Culture

The Art of Eating

To understand the art of eating you must know the philosophy of food. food must be fresh, have flavor and possess proper texture. If the food itself is bad, even the greatest chef will not be able to cook a flavor into it. As in other things in life, we must avoid excesses in food. We should not aim at eating too much if we want to eat for good health. We should also be sparing in our tastes and eat only when hungry, and not just eat for the sake of eating. The same applies to drinking. If we eat too much at a time, it hurts our lungs, and if we eat too little we become hungry and that hurts our vital energy. A Chinese cookery book in full of these rules.

Anyone who claims to have written a Chinese cookery book without these rules has not written a cookery book. Also, anyone who aims at extraordinary or peculiar dishes just to astonish himself or his guests may end up with extraordinary diseases. Simple food properly cooked will ensure good eating and good health. Everything in cooking must match and there is an order in eating food of different flavors. Clear mush go with clear, thick with thick and soft with soft. Usually, we should eat food of a salty flavor first and then food of a more negative flavor. Heavy should precede the light and dry precedes gravy. We must have noticed that in a Chinese dinner, soup is never served first as it is in the west. Salty flavor is relieved by bitter or hot tasty food. Too much wine dulls the stomach, which can only be aroused to vigor again by sweet or sour food. Mustard is for a warm day and pepper for a cool day. For a formal dinner, the four heroes of the dining table are the chicken, duck, fish and pig. Without these four a formal dinner loses its elegance and formality.

The absorption of good points from other cultures has enriched a Chinese dinner today. Tenderloin steak, cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes have kept good company in dinners which the Chinese quite unashamedly call Chinese. Sometimes a Chinese dinner is topped off with Sunkist oranges, ice-cream and coffee instead of the traditional Chinese tea!

Toothpicks & Chopsticks

The use of toothpicks at a table is another standard practice. As in most Asian countries, the polite way to deal with lodged fragments of food is to cover one’s mouth with one hand while the tooth pick is being used with the other. Toothpicks are frequently used between courses as it is believed that the tastes of one course should not be allowed to mar one’s enjoyment of the next course.

Toothpicks have another major value. They are ideal, and socially acceptable, for picking up those meal items which often defy the best chopstick approach – slippery button mushrooms and jelly-fish slices (do not attempt to eat peanuts unless you are a chopstick master!).

The handling of rice with chopsticks is also known to present problems, unless the rice has been dampened by juices from Meat Dishes and is therefore more manageable. The socially-acceptable method for eating rice is to bring one’s bowl close to one’s mouth and quickly scoop the rice into it with one’s chopsticks; this is difficult for the foreigner and so simply lifting portions of rice to the mouth from the bowl held in the other hand is perfectly acceptable. Do not attempt to eat rice from a bowl sitting on the table – no one else will!

One chopstick craft which a visitor is not advised to try is the deboning of a fish when its top half has been eaten, without turning it over. The careful separation of the fish skeleton from the lower half of the flesh will usually be performed by the host or a waiter.

The reason why a fish will never be turned over is a traditional superstition, and a tribute to South China’s fishing families – bad luck would ensue and a fishing boat would capsize if the fish were up-ended.

There are superstitions associated with chopsticks too. If you find an uneven pair at your table setting, it means you are going to miss a boat, plane or train. Dropping chopsticks will inevitably bring bad luck, as will laying them across each other. Crossed chopsticks are, however, permissible in a “dim sum” restaurant. Your waiter will cross them to show that your bill has been settled, or you can do the same to show the waiter that you have finished and are ready to pay the bill.

Now you are well-equipped to be really a part of the Chinese dining experience!

The Art of Drinking

Traditionally the Chinese have only two types of drinks, Wine & Tea. Although Chinese culinary art and tea brewing have reached great heights unequaled in the world, Chinese wine has not reached the extent of the West. However, the Chinese make up for this lack of variety by having a proper philosophy for drinking and by insistence on proper moments and surroundings for drinking wine. As a result of this the Chinese feeling for wine has been essentially correct for many centuries. One writer says wine resembles the cavalier and is for good comradeship. Tea resembles the recluse and is for quiet company.

Wine

Scalars and connoisseurs throughout Chinese history have left behind many writings on the art of drinking. The famous poet Li-Po said in his poem:

“Three cups make you understand the Great Dao; Once drunk solve all your thousand worries”.

Of most interesting and instructive writing on wine drinking is by Liu Ling one of the seven wise men of the Bamboo Grotto of the sixth century A.D. His famous essay on wine drinking has immortalized him. According to him only those who drink well leave their names to posterity. The greatest joy to get out of drinking is to get just intoxicated and not drunk – a state of stupor when you lapse into a semi-inebriate state of placid enjoyment varied by intervals of absolute unconsciousness or of partial return to lucidity. The ears are beyond the reach of thunder and you could not see mountain. Heat and cold no longer exist and affairs for the world are of no concern.

Sometimes it is difficult to follow Liu Ling’s philosophy rigidly, an to get drink becomes inevitable. Therefore, there are rules for getting drunk so that you get drunk with elegance and dignity. i quote here: “get drunk before colorful flowers in order to absorb their light and color; at night get drunk in the snow to clear your thoughts. If it is because of success you get drunk, sing to harmonize the spirit. At a farewell party, when you are drunk, make music to strengthen the spirit. For a military man, such as a general getting drunk, should put up more flags to increase his military splendor. All these have elegance and dignity, and not just being noisy and quarrelsome when drunk, or forcing others to drink under the table as it happens at some social functions. This is reprehensible.

Tea

This is the Chinese drink of drinks. Tea is a symbol of earthly purity. It’s preparation calls for the most fastidious cleanliness from the time of picking and drying of the leaves to the final infusion and drinking. Tea is easily spoilt by the slightest contamination of oily hand or cups, or scent. It must therefore be kept away from scent of any kind. It has been pointed out that tea resembles the recluse and is for quit company. It can only be enjoyed in an atmosphere where there is no ostentation or suggestion of luxury. it is said that wine can be enjoyed with sing-song girls, but not tea.

For more than a thousand years tea drinking has given the greatest pleasure in Chinese life. it is for more than just quenching of thirst. It is for relaxation in quiet company. With children or babies crying or people quarreling it would be impossible to enjoy the tea. The atmosphere for drinking should be such that it leads to quiet contemplation and to the realms of the immortals. this is exactly what a scholar of the seventh century A.D. said. He wrote about his tea drinking pleasure:

The first cup moistens my lips and throat

The second cup breaks my loneliness,

The third cup searches my barren entrails,

The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,

The fifth cup purifies me,

The sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals,

The seventh cup – Ah, but I can take no more.

Chinese tea cups are small, unlike the huge teacups or tumbles of the West. Drinking from huge cups in large quantities is vulgar and loses the whole essence of tea drinking. Some call it buffalo’s drink.

In the West people also enjoy drinking tea, but they drink it differently from the Chinese, from large cups and in large quantities. It is not for us to criticize. Our cultures are different and our objectives are different. Samuel Johnson wrote this:

I am a hardened and shameless tea drinker,

who has for many years diluted his meal with only infusion

of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool;

who with tea amuses the evening,

with tea solaces the midnight and

with tea welcomes the morning.

The difference between Samuel Johnson and his Chinese counterpart, whom I have quoted, lies in Samuel Johnson’s enjoyment of tea drinking which is earthly or mortal, and his Chinese counterpart’s which is to be carried to the realms of the immortals — heavenly.

Spectrum of Chinese Culture by Lee Siow Mong,

Chapter 7, Page 183-186

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