Cooking a Chinese Feast? Menu Planning Tips

Have you played around with enough dishes to start planning a Chinese feast for friends? A few hints to get you started:

menu planning

As a former caterer, I would recommend planning your menu carefully – you probably don’t want to be stuck at the stove producing 6 stirfries one after the other while the first ones cool or your guests start without you.

Traditionally, you should count 1 dish per person, perhaps plus a soup, but this can vary based on your knowledge of your guests’ appetites. If you plan to entertain more than 6 people, don’t worry – you needn’t cook 8, 10, 12 dishes! You can still make 6 dishes and increase the amounts. Be aware, however, that you may need to do more cooking in batches – if you crowd the wok, your food will steam and not stirfry!
Serve plenty of rice, especially if you are providing lots of spicy dishes.

Among the dishes you choose, you should try to vary several aspects:

  • cooking method: Try not to choose all stirfries – too labor intensive at the end! Instead, go with a steamed dish, a braised or simmered dish, a stirfry or 2 (after all, people will expect those!), and some cold dishes. Cold dishes are truly your friends, as many can be started (or completed!) well in advance and finished up to 20-30 m ahead of dinnertime.
  • ingredients: It is customary to spread the choices out among meat, poultry, seafood, vegetable dishes, but again, you know your guests best. This is why cooking Chinese food for company is very flexible – you can please the carnivores, the vegetarians, and the omnivores all with one menu!
  • heat factor: Do you all love spicy food? Pile on the chilies. Are some of your guests timid when it comes to spice? Make a few spicy dishes, a few blander ones. Not sure? Serve some spicy condiments on the side so people can kick the heat up a notch to their own taste.

serving styles

We usually serve our Chinese meals “family style:” All the dishes are placed on the table at once, and each person is given a bowl of rice – we reach into the dishes with our own chopsticks (I hear some of you groaning!) and place a bit of food on top of the rice or directly in our mouths. The rice bowl is held in one hand and raised to the mouth – this way food has a shorter way to travel for those who are chopstick-challenged.

If you are serving more than just family, you may want to consider providing small plates for each guest and a serving spoon or serving chopsticks for each dish. Guests can then serve themselves onto their plates rather than having too many chopsticks in the food, which can make some people squeamish (this is the way a sick family member at our house is quarantined, as well!)

If you really want to impress your guests and choose to spend the evening in the kitchen (?!) you can take a stab at banquet style service. Start the meal with a few cold dishes on the table, then serve the hot dishes one after the other, each dish appearing just after your guests have all tried the previous one. The order doesn’t matter too much, but keep in mind that you should start with the bland and move toward the spicy, which will keep your guests’ taste buds intact for the blander ones! At New Year’s banquets and major festive occasions, it is traditional to serve a fish dish last, as yu, the word for fish in Mandarin, sounds exactly like the word for abundance – it is a wish that you will continue to “have abundance” – after the rest of the meal is done and into the year.

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