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Chinese meal

     Chinese meals are a special problem because the categories are different.

     In the first place, a Chinese meal is rather like a buffet, at which a guest eats little bits of this and that rather than a large portion of just one food. Chinese dishes are not served in individual portions, but are platters shared by all those who sit at the table. Everyone can-indeed he is expected to-eat from all the dishes presented.

     A properly planned dinner includes at least one fowl, one fish and one meat dish-and these are complemented with appropriate vegetables. The Chinese set off spicy dishes with bland ones, delicate flavors with robust; and soft-textured foods are complemented by something crisp.

     While the Chinese serve many dishes at a meal, they do not-except at elaborate banquet-style dinners - present a menu in courses. Cold foods, meant to be nibbled like hors d'oeuvre, are sometimes placed on the table before the guests are seated. Otherwise, all the dishes are brought to the table at one time and eaten together. Hot tidbits like shrimp toast are classic banquet fare, brought to the table throughout the meal.

     Although they are famous for excellent soups, the Chinese serve them in what may seem surprising ways. In some cases, soups appear early in the meal, but the light broths might be sipped throughout, and both the broths and richer, cornstarch-thickened soups like velvet corn or sour and hot soup may be presented separately in the middle of a dinner. The heavy, full-meal soups like wonton and Chinese noodle soup are most often eaten as lunches or snacks, though sometimes they become a part of the menu for a special occasion such as a birthday banquet.

     Desserts as such are practically unknown in China, though some hosts serve fresh fruit after a meal. Sweets included in this book would usually be served between courses at a Chinese banquet. Since a full meal requires such a careful balance of foods-and the preparation of many new dishes at once-it may be easiest to start out by using the recipes in this book for simple substitutions in Western-style meals. A Chinese vegetable might be sampled one day, a chicken dish the next, while you stick to the sequence of courses you are used to.

     The number of dishes you can serve easily is also influenced by the way they must be cooked. One of the most frequently used of Chinese techniques is the stir-fry method-constant lifting and turning of small pieces of food to cook them quickly. This is simple enough to master, but stir-fried dishes, like other short-order foods, are meant to be brought to the table the minute they are done and served piping hot. And only one pound of meat can be stir-fried at one time. In all likelihood, one modest stir-fried dish per meal will be all you can handle at first.

     After a few successful experiments with several different recipes, your understanding of Chinese methods will have grown sufficiently so that you are ready to undertake a full Chinese meal. The easiest way to do this is to plan to serve only two or three Chinese dishes-maybe a soup and two main courses-together with the traditional rice and tea, and fresh fruit for dessert.
     With a little practice, you will quickly gain the confidence to try full-scale dinners. In your menus, combine foods that are stir-fried or deep-fried, thus requiring last-minute attention, with others than can be finished earlier and kept warm in their pots. Try to mix a variety of basic foods (meat, poultry, fish or seafood), of tastes, of textures, of colors, in typical Chinese style.

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