Of all the food available, Chinese dishes are perhaps the most cost-effective and enjoyable. When a diner has taken his seat in a restaurant, the first thing he is served is a cup of tea, which is designed to activate the stomach and whet the appetite. Besides, drinking tea during the course of a dinner or banquet helps dissolve the grease and digest. In different culinary styles different teas and tea sets are used, and the way the tea is served aries from place to place. The gongfu tea served in a Chaozhou restaurant, for example, is brewed with the Tieguanyuin tea, whose leaves are brownish green with a reddish edge, and ‘as heavy as iron’. When brewing the gongfu tea, the kettle should be raised high, so that boiled water can describe an arc before landing in the teapot. In Sichuan restaurants, tea is served in bowls with a lid. When the diner has seated himself, the waiter or waitress, usually a charming young woman or a strapping young man, would emerge with a brass kettle equipped with an unusually long, slim nozzle. To the amazement of the diner and the onlooker, when the water is being poured, it travels a three-foo distance rom the Kettle via the nozzle to the bowl, with not a single drop spilled. When drinking tea, make sure not to open your mouth too wide, and never smack your lips in a noisy way. Only by gentle sipping can the pleasure of drinking Chinese tea sink in.
As the saying goes among the Chinese, ‘No banquet is complete without liquor or wine.’ Maotai, Dukang and Erguotou are among the strongest of all Chinese spirits. Qujiu, Fenjiu and Jiafan are liquors of mild proofs. Beer, champagne and wine are served generally as aperitifs.
The Chinese are fastidious not only about the tast and nutrition of what they eat but also about the order in which different dishes are served. A Chinese banquet differs from a Western one in that soup is always the last course to be served. As Yuan Mei, a Qing-dynasty poet, summarized, ‘Saltier dishes are served earlier than less salty ones; dishes with rich flavours always herald dished with a delicate flavour; it is always appropriate for soup to be served last.’ All the eight major Chinese culinary schools seem order of course for banquets: cold dishes – fried dishes – major course – soup – disserts – sweet dishes – fruit.