Be savvy about table manners in Hong Kong
About 20 years ago I was dining at a big, round table under the stars at the edge of the South China Sea in a tiny Hong Kong fishing village. As befitting the setting, this was a casual affair even though the food was as plentiful and as tasty as any you might experience at a fancy Hong Kong restaurant.
I remember this event not only because the meal was so good, but apparently because I was so not. Here's what happened: I was eagerly eating a little of whatever I could get my chopsticks into when suddenly I indulged in something very spicy and my whole mouth felt like it had burst into flame. The person to my left noticed my panicked expression, my difficulty breathing and my puffed out cheeks and told me to eat some rice to kill the burn.
Happy to hear of this quick remedy, I dipped my chopsticks into the communal rice bowl. That did the trick but my colleagues at the table didn't seem to care. Instead, I was reprimanded.
One fellow chewed me out by telling me how uncouth I was. Another person was more specific, letting me know how wrong it is to use your personal chopsticks in the rice bowl that serves everyone.
I looked confused so he elaborated. "Never dip into the main rice bowl. Instead, transfer the rice into your own dish with the spoon provided and then eat it. Nobody wants your germs."
Although I thought my case was good enough for diverting from tradition, I got the point and never messed up that way again. For others new to or unfamiliar with certain customs, here are some other dining habits particular to thriving Hong Kong:
• If shark's fin soup is offered to you, never decline. This expensive dish is a delicacy you must try even if you are not all that thrilled by the prospect. Also, even if you don't like what you taste, be sure to show your appreciation by thanking your hosts for offering such a rare treat on such a special occasion.
• When eating soup of any kind, don't be afraid to slurp. This kind of behavior signals enjoyment and is actually encouraged by your hosts, many of whom are apt to slurp their soup right along with you.
• If you are dining in a very formal setting and do not see a napkin available to put on your lap, don't fret. Instead, be secure in knowing that you will most likely be given a hot towel to use for cleaning up both before and after the meal you are about to enjoy.
• Beware all the potential faux pas you may encounter at a traditional banquet by being prepared with as much knowledge about this ritualistic meal as you can uncover. Most Asian guidebooks cover the topic at length, as do a host of Internet sites. Here's a short introduction:
In Hong Kong, partaking of the highly regarded Chinese banquet does not mean simply sharing a good meal with great friends. In fact, this particular and very honorable pastime means joining together for a formal feast, served very slowly and with great ceremony -- up to and including the many traditional (and sometimes lengthy) toasts given over drinks and delivered throughout the meal.
If invited to such an important and lavish event, expect your place setting to include a printed menu that lets you know to expect a plethora of individual courses, sometimes as many as 14.
Most importantly, expect to stay at your seat for up to three or even four hours. This can sometimes be trying if you are not the type who likes to linger, but hang in there anyway, helped along with the knowledge that most likely you are not the only one having difficulty sitting at the dinner table for such a long time.
Hint: The way you'll know you don't have to wait much more before the meal will finally come to a close is when you are served dessert, typically just a single orange. As is custom, after eating this last course, your Chinese counterparts will immediately get up from the table and leave. When that happens, follow suit -- although given the length of the event and the fullness of your stomach, I doubt you will need to be pushed into this final Chinese banquet tradition. I know I never do.