Dishes of Chinese cuisine

There is a wide variety of restaurants to choose from, small, not so small, and luxury, and the prices naturally vary. At lunch time they are always crowded, mainly with men. For this meal the snack is as popular in Hong Kong as it is in England, and the cafeteria system is reversed. Instead of the customer moving along with a tray choosing dishes, a number of waiters and waitresses move continually between the tables bearing trays with an assortment of delicious-looking hot or cold snacks. The choice is so varied, and the dishes so tasty, that you can quickly eat your fill and find yourself with a very expensive bill at the end of the meal.

The prospect of chopsticks is not nearly so formidable as some people believe. With a little perseverance quite enough food can be conveyed to the mouth, and the charming, attentive little waitress will be delighted to instruct you in their use. She will even, if you cannot, or pretend you cannot, manage them, feed you herself. All you will have to do is sit like a nestling thrush with your maw well open while she pops in each nicely seasoned mouthful in the most maternal way. My observation is that this method does not appeal nearly so much to the female nestling as it does to the male, and, curiously, it also does not appeal to her to see her male belongings so nurtured. In these cases, if the self-help approach is by shyness or for other reason ruled out, it is quite possible to ask for a knife and fork.

In private homes we sampled dinner-party food and family meals. Both were equally well cooked and served but there were fewer dishes at the latter. The Chinese custom, like the Arab, seems to be to talk a long time before dinner and then to dine and go home. One Chinese friend told me that Europeans could be very tiresome by turning up late, and then keeping everybody out of bed for an unconscionable time after dinner. Another Chinese custom requires that the dining-table shall be round because of its greater intimacy. Now a large round table takes up too much room in a small dining-nor sitting-room, so the difficulty is overcome by having a small square table with a large folding round top. The local carpenters have not been long in devising ways of making furniture suitable to overcrowded conditions. Besides the separate table-tops, we saw meat safes that were also tables.

At one small dinner-party in a flat, dinner began with horsd'œuvre of cold meats, cold fish, prawns and vegetables. After the shark's fin soup came roast chicken, meat pasties, fried fish, an indeterminate dish which that painstaking educator Mr. Chung, who was one of the guests, described simply as 'entrails', chicken again, roast duck, boiled fish, and a sweet soup of lotus seeds eaten with dumplings stuffed with beans and peas. The Chinese seem to share the Arab idea that bits and pieces like this do not constitute a meal, for having thought it must be over with the sweet things, we were confronted with rice and a hotpot of all sorts of good but unexplained things. After this, as the diary says, 'It was pleasant to relax in an armchair'.

Each one of these items constitutes a separate course, and one of the main differences between a party like this and a family meal is that at the latter all the food is put on the table at once. Also the base of a family meal is always either rice or noodles, with several dishes of either meat or fish or vegetables to go with it.

The number of people engaged in producing, preparing or distributing food is quite extraordinary: the fisher-folk and the farmers, the proprietors of restaurants, food shops, market stalls and cooked-food stalls, and the hawkers of food to be met everywhere. Markets are crowded with housewives who are usually very careful to spend their money wisely, and when they want chicken, for example, they do not have to buy a whole bird but can take just a wing or a leg. So many of Hong Kong's millions have to be very careful over their family budgets, but however poor they never seem so under-nourished as, for instance, desert Arabs. The Chinese achieve a more balanced diet and they appreciate fresh, green vegetables and good cooking. In markets where the poorest people do their shopping you will find cuttle-fish from Korea, popular because they swell a lot in cooking and need much chewing, bean sprouts of surprising length, grown in tanks and weighing very light so that you get plenty for your money, and very tiny salted fish, which also weigh light, and all these are cheap and nourishing foods.

But it is in the actual cooking of food that the Chinese excel. Everything must be absolutely fresh and vegetables never overcooked so that they lose their crispness. Frying each ingredient separately before cooking the whole dish is another essential, and so is the use of tasty seasonings such as soya-bean sauce, peanut oil, ginger, bean curd, rice wine, and many others.

Something should be said of the more peculiar dishes of Chinese cuisine. Lest I may be accused of extravagance in my statements by Western readers, I should say that I took every possible care to confirm what was told me. The Chinese cook certainly has the widest variety of material. 'I think we eat almost everything except earthworms', said one of my informants. 'We do eat rice-worms, small worms found in the wet rice-fields at harvest time. Beetles? Yes, certainly. Some beetles dried and salted are very good and crisp.'

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