At the risk of sounding corny, I’m going to make a bold declaration: there is nothing more fun than celebrating love with amazing people. My friends Shelah and Simon got married last week in the Outer Banks. It is so incredibly exciting that they are now married, because not only are they completely adorable and perfect together, but because they are both amazing people and it’s really cool to see how happy they make each other! Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it to their formal ceremony. Fortunately, they also held a traditional Chinese banquet in Philadelphia that we were able to attend. It was so incredibly cool to celebrate with these people! I really love and miss all of my friends from Philadelphia, and I could go on for hours about how great they are. But instead, I’m going to write about the food. Because that’s how I roll.
We enjoyed a 12-course banquet meal and you’re about to see all of it. Please note, the photos are shot on the fly from my iPhone. While sitting at a table of ten people who are all excited about digging into platters of lobster and the like, you can’t do much better than that. Here we go.
The first course was a bit of a mystery when it arrived. It looked like Chinese charcuterie. Slices of what appeared to be ham and fish surrounded a pile of sesame-dusted noodles. The noodles were the most interesting. My vegetarian friend Anthony dug in, thinking that the noodles would be one of the only things he could enjoy that evening. Well, these noodles had a snappy but tender texture and a faintly briny flavor that suggested the sea. Turns out the noodles were actually jellyfish. Vegetarian fail. But on the bright side, I can report that I tried a new food, and jellyfish doesn’t taste like much of anything.
Next, we were served egg-drop soup with tofu and shrimp. It was yummy, but I tried not to eat much of it. At this point, we thought there might be six courses ahead. I love soup and didn’t want to fill up too early in the night.
Next came something that made my heart sing: duck! Duck is by far my favorite meat. Our table was split on this subject, with a couple people saying they were timid about eating Daffy, and a few who agreed that Daffy makes a great sandwich with those steamed buns, hoisin sauce, and julienned scallions. This duck was served with slices of meat and crispy skin separated, so you could customize your sandwich.
Up next? Deep-fried squares of tofu stuffed with shrimp mousse. In the middle of the platter were wok-fried snow peas with calamari. The tofu was incredibly delicate inside, some of the best I’ve tried. But it didn’t hold a candle to the calamari, which was cooked absolutely perfectly. You know how calamari can get rubbery and chewy? This squid almost melted in your mouth.
Until this point, our vegetarian friend Anthony had been gazing wistfully at the meat-laden platters. We were excited when a vegetable platter appeared for him. It consisted of stir-fried everything, but mostly mushrooms. There were even thin mushrooms that looked like noodles – but after the jellyfish incident, we knew that what appeared to be noodles would probably not be noodles after all. While I didn’t try any of the veggies – taking vegetables from a vegetarian during a Chinese banquet is like taking candy from a baby in terms of cruelty – Anthony reported enjoying them very much.
The next course consisted of whole lobsters, cut up and fried with shells on. After separating shell from meat, we could eat tender and delicious chunks of lobster tail and claw meat. The claws were somewhat difficult to extract, at which point people began using their fingers to dig in. We’d been drinking consistently until then, which probably helped with the decision to abandon chopsticks. Getting messy was worth it. The lobster was great. I’ve never ordered lobster at a Chinese restaurant before, but after tasting this, I’d definitely do it in the future.
Since we were on a seafood kick, it wasn’t surprising when the next dish consisted of jumbo prawns in walnut sauce. These shrimp were huge, fresh, and perfectly tender. I loved the sweet walnut sauce, and even made sure to eat the accompanying steamed broccoli to offset the large portions of fried food. Because, you know, eating a healthy piece of broccoli cancels out fried stuff. Obviously.
My instinct is to say that the next course was my favorite of the evening, but everything was so good that I can’t really make that decision. However, soft-shell crabs are always beyond amazing. Some people at the table were a little squeamish about eating crabs with their shells on. As much as I wanted to encourage them that the crunch of soft-shell makes the crab that much tastier, I couldn’t be that convincing. Because if they were scared, that meant more soft-shell crab for me. I’m a glutton when it comes to soft-shell crab. Guilty as charged.
At this point, everyone was getting full. We’d had seven courses, which is a lot even if you’re sharing a platter with ten people. But the food kept coming, and it kept getting better. Our final seafood course was black bass steamed with ginger. It was really fresh, hardly tasting of fish at all, but fresh ginger. Our server used his spoon to heap piles of fish, skin and all, onto our plates. The skin wasn’t as crispy as I might have liked, but after a dinner of heavy fried food, I can’t complain.
I’m always sad to see the last of seafood, but the next dish was delicious enough that I didn’t mind. We had beef short ribs with peppers and onions. The servers actually placed two on our table at first, then came back, yelled at us for having two, and removed the second. The beef was a little fattier than I’m used to, even with the short ribs that I’ve cooked at home, but it was so tender and flavorful that it didn’t matter. At this point, a couple of the guys were very excited to get knives (pictured in the photo below) in addition to the chopsticks and forks we’d been given. They were much more effective in the whole separation-of-meat-from-bone process than a chopstick might be.
We weren’t done with meat. Next came pork with pineapples. I love this combination on tacos with cilantro, onion, and lime, but a Chinese variation was equally awesome. The sweet pineapple was a great contrast to the rich pork. Texture-wise, the pork was similar to the beef of the previous course; you might call it well-marbled, or at the very least, rich. We were so full by this point that it was all I could do to try a bite of this.
Stuffed though we were from ten – yes, ten! – courses, the food kept coming. The next one was Xavier’s favorite of the night. I’m going to have to ask anyone reading this if they can identify the dish so we can order it next time we go out. It was a noodle dish with bok choy and perfectly cooked seafood – shrimp, scallops, and squid. The noodles were cooked somewhat al dente and crunchy. The whole thing was served in what might have been lobster sauce. It was clear and thick, reminding me almost of savory Jello. I began wishing I had another stomach.. or six.
Not done yet. Next came fried rice with brown sauce, vegetables, shrimp, and scallops. I was excited to see more shellfish! Even though my stomach was about to burst, it could handle more seafood and rice. Aside from that, I don’t remember much about how this one tasted except it was fine.
And with that came the last course: dessert. The Chinese desserts I’ve tried have always been either really great or completely not to my liking. I love sesame balls, for instance, and that coconut-flavored Jello that is served at many dim sum restaurants. Unfortunately, this dessert wasn’t one that I loved. It was tapioca and taro soup, and after everything we’d tasted, it was just a little bland. Still, though, it was something that I’d probably never order at a Chinese place on my own, so I was happy to try something new.
And thus concluded the Chinese banquet, at which point we terrorized the bars of Philadelphia for a while. That, however, is a post in itself. It is also a post that will likely never be written, because I need to preserve my dignity sometimes. And sharing with the world that you imbibed in so many intoxicating libations that you couldn’t make it out of the car when you got back to the house? And then slept in your mom’s driveway all night? That would be private information. (For the record, I didn’t drive home. That would be utterly ludicrous, and that’s another reason why Xavier is hands-down the best boyfriend ever: not only did he drive me home in my time of need, but he slept in the car with me. I love him).
But I would definitely recommend that you find yourself a Chinese wedding banquet to attend, and that you do it as soon as possible. I loved sitting around a table with friends old and new, trying things I’d never be exposed to otherwise. And when that good time is in honor of the marriage of two amazing people, it’s just that much more special. So go forth, find someone of Chinese heritage, and encourage them to marry as soon as possible. The effort will be worth this very special meal.
Have you ever been to a Chinese wedding banquet? What was your experience like?