We recently had the honor of attending a special dinner with the mayor of a city near Wenzhou (I forget the name, sorry).
We were invited because the mayor’s son is a student at the university and Ryan is his tutor so the mayor wanted to meet him. (The mayor didn’t speak much English so the Dean of the International Office was the translator for the evening.)
We have been to a number of banquets at this point, but this was definitely the fanciest. The location alone was jaw dropping. It was on the famous West Lake in the center of Hangzhou. And when I say on, I mean it was practically in the West Lake we were so close. I cannot even begin to imagine how much the private room cost.
The menu was also one of the fanciest I’ve ever seen. Every banquet we’ve been to has included dozens of dishes that go by in the lazy susan. But here we got individual plates for a change. Each small plate had a different dish. Sometimes just a bowl of soup, other times an entire fish. I lost count after the 6th plate and I would estimate we had 12 to 13 dishes in total.
Most of the time we had no idea what we were eating. In fact, I think I might have eaten Foie Gras, something I never intended on eating in my life. (For the record I thought it was gross before I found out what it was.)
The meal started out with a little appetizer plate. Or me it was an unappetizing appetizer plate as it had cold jellyfish (in the bowl), duck tongue, boney chicken and a solid piece of dark tofu. I can say I highly enjoyed the breadstick.
We had to rely on the translation of others when we did ask what the dish was. We were told one dish, a thickish orange soup, was ‘swallow’s spit.’ (Actually bird’s nest soup.) This was a delicacy I have never expected to eat in my life. According to Wikipedia, bird’s nest soup is one of the most expensive animal products you can buy. It wasn’t too bad!
We also had a fish that we were told was “very special. It can live in salt and fresh water.” I’m not a big fan of fish, but this was pretty good. It was fresh tasty, not fishy at all, and the meat came off easily with the chopsticks. We later found out (to our chagrin) that it was puffer fish. You know, one of the world’s most poisonous vertebrae. Luckily we are all still alive so I guess the poison part was carefully cut out.
Banquets are a formal affair in China with strict rules of behavior. We don’t know them all, but we knew some things from past experiences. Things like toasting each other. During a banquet it is common for the host to get up, say a few words, say ganbei and everyone drinks the entire contents of their glass. Glasses are then re-filled, and someone else does a toast. Throughout the entire dinner we must have stood for 7 or 8 toasts. Then there were the private toasts in which people came up to us individually to toast us. Then later, Ryan went up to the mayor to toast him individually.
The mayor had ordered a fancy French wine to drink. Ryan said it was a waste though because they don’t sip it, rather, they drain the entire glass at every toast, so they barely get to enjoy it.
Luckily, we didn’t worry much about other banquet protocol as there were a few westerners there and 3 kids. Kids are always good for a distraction.
We’ve had some pretty surreal experiences here in China but this is near the top. It was probably the fanciest meal I’ve ever had. We were told the menu was an “imperial style” menu from the days of the emperor. Every dish had a name like East-West Wind. And Crane Flying over the Mountain. They said nowadays these types of meals were only for gov’t officials. I’m not sure if that’s true (I would think anyone could get it for the right price) but it was an amazing experience!