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traditional dishes for Chinese anniversary?

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We are taking my parents out for dinner for their 50th anniversary. My mom said they would love to have a "Chinese feast." Web research has provided few clues, if any, as to what might be included in a Chinese anniversary dinner. The only thing I've found so far is that there should be an even number of dishes, since odd could portend bad luck. It seems obvious that we should have a soup and a mix of veggie dishes and meat dishes, but beyond that are there any guidelines that might create a great meal?

We are probably going to a Sezchuan restaurant but may end up in a another type of Chinese place if I get outvoted.

Thanks much!

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  1. The Chinese don't traditionally celebrate anniversaries, which might explain the dearth of resources on the 'net. Still, younger generations of modern Chinese like to throw big bashes when Mom and Dad reach 40 or 50 years of marriage, and those I've attended have been pretty much like traditional birthday celebrations (60 is a biggie for the Chinese, because it's the completion of 5 times around the Chinese calendar). At such a dinner, you'd start with an appetizer platter of cold meats and jellyfish salad (beef tongue is particularly common). After the appetizer (as sort of a second appetizer, I guess) typically comes honey-glazed prawns w/ walnuts (with or without the mayo, depending on the restaurant). The soup course will usually be something extravagant, either shark's fin or bird's nest (my fave). The 'main courses' (not sure if there's meaning to the order or not) will have a whole chicken (roasted or dry-fried), roast (Peking) duck, braised vegetables w/ whole black mushrooms, a beef and vegetable dish (Chinese broccoli or baby bok choy are common), a whole steamed fish, and long-life noodles. Nine dishes is considered a lucky number for significant birthdays ("everlasting"), but this course count does not include rice or dessert.

    Since Mom hails from just outside Canton, this is predominantly a Cantonese menu. I don't know what an equivalent Szechuan menu might be.

    Good luck, and have fun!

    1. This is a very general reply.
      Korean and Chinese "elder" celebrations are quite similar. Foods that are equated with longevity, health, luck, and success are generally served. At the "biggie" that ricepad mentions the food is probably more aligned with health and longevity, rather than luck and success, although all four elements are generally represented.

      1. As ricepad noted, Chinese don't usually celebrate anniversaries. I'd advise going to a restaurant and asking them to come up with a menu for an anniversary. After they give you a funny, uncomprehending look, tell them you want a special dinner, the number of people, and your price range. Tell them you want authentic dishes, not the stuff for non-Chinese folks. Do this in person after the lunch rush or before the dinner rush. Also explain to them any food preferences or dislikes.

        4 Replies
        1. re: raytamsgv

          Hey, thanks ricepad, for the great details! I will share this with my siblings as we plan. Hannaone, that;s good to know - I will ask the proprietors about the four elements and see what they say. And raytamsgv, you are right - I went 2x during slow times, to different restaurants, and I got an uncomprehending response. When I tried to clarify what I wanted, I got the "just come in and order" response. Now I know to ask for a special dinner and clarify the price range and number of folks, etc. Thanks!

          1. re: SeattleK

            Don't know what it's like in your part of the world, but here in Toronto, many Chinese restaurants have special "set" menus for banquets. They are typically 8 or 12 courses in length (both are considered lucky numbers). It's kind of amusing that the price for the dinner is often $188, $288, $388, etc., depending on the number of people, and what they're serving.

            I'm assuming your folks are not Chinese, in which case I'd avoid certain things, such as shark's fin soup (a taste so subtle it's often confused with blandness), or sea cucumber (a texture that's definitely an acquired taste). Both are quite expensive and not likely to be appreciated unless your folks are real connoisseurs. I'd substitute sweet corn and crab soup unless your folks like spicy, and then I'd go hot and sour.

            As ricepad notes, you'll get a plate of cold sliced meats with jellyfish to start. The jellyfish is cut into thick strands, and has a crunchy/rubbery texture and a somewhat bland flavour. A little hot sauce or Chinese mustard picks it up. The next course is usually "small" seafood. Here in Toronto, shrimps and scallops with broccoli is a popular choice. Next soup, and then, in no particular order that I can remember, a chicken or duck dish, a beef dish, a pork dish, a fish dish, and "big" seafood - either crab or lobster. Note: if you are served a whole fish, it is considered very bad form to "flip" the fish (i.e. turn it over). Typically, the waiter will use a spoon to separate the head and tail from the body, and slide the spoon along the backbone to separate the top filet. When that part has been eaten, someone is supposed to take the spoon and gently separate the bones from the bottom filet and remove them. "Flipping the fish" is thought to mean your future plans will capsize. Also, the cheeks of the fish are considered a delicacy, and are supposed to be offered to either the guests of honour, or the oldest person first.

            If it's a birthday banquet, there will always be a noodle dish, and regardless of whether you are using chopsticks or forks, you NEVER cut the noodles; to do so is to "cut your life short". Other occasions may have a rice dish instead, or have the rice follow the noodles.

            Rounding it out is dessert, which can be one course or two, depending on the rest of the banquet. For example, sometimes you might get mango pudding first, followed by red bean or tapioca soup, while others may just have one of those.

            Having an Asian wife, every time we go back to visit, we get taken out for 3 or 4 of these by various friends and relatives, so I've probably been to 30 or 40 of these in my life. Here's what I've learned about menus and etiquette: Don't expect any Chinese-American dishes, like sweet & sour anything, egg or spring rolls, chop suey/chow mein, or fried rice with so much soy sauce it's almost black. When a dish is first passed around the table (or spun around, as there is often a lazy susan in the centre), just take a little bit until everyone has had some. Your second portion should also be small; after the dish has gone around the table twice, you can take a larger bit if there's still some left. (Depending on the quality of the restaurant, waiters may take over much of the burden of serving.) If there is just a little bit of a dish left, and it is offered to you, you must refuse at least once; only after you have been urged to "finish it, finish it", is it OK to accept. Try not to be the one finishing every dish - not because it's impolite, but because you'll never get through the rest of the meal if you do! Finally, most Chinese people do not linger after the food is finished. Once dessert is done (and the almost inevitable leftovers have been brought out), Chinese people will pay the bill and leave almost immediately. The overall experience can be a great deal of fun; bring a big appetite and a sense of adventure, and enjoy!

            1. re: SeattleK

              Right. Almost every Chinese restaurant with a Chinese clientele -- even holes in the wall -- have some pre-set menus for various sizes of groups at various price ranges. Depending on the restaurant, they might not have a copy of the menu in English, though. For non-Asians, you probably want a menu in a lower price range, since the more expensive ones usually have Chinese luxury ingredients (sharks fin, sea cucumber, etc.) that most Anglos don't like (or at least, not enough to pay the premium price). Usually these set menus are a good deal, are already designed to have a range of dishes that are different from each other, and the kitchen can turn them out reliably.

              A set menu will usually include a dish from each protein group (fowl, fish, shellfish, beef and pork). Rice will not be included and is generally not served as part of a banquet -- it's considered a cheap filler and and asking for it implies that the other food is insufficient. Noodles are usually served last (just before dessert).

              1. re: SeattleK

                While there are set menus, any Chinese restaurant will allow you to create your own menu. They'll even help you do it. Many Chinese families create their own 10 course meal selections or modify an existing set menu. It's very common.

            2. yes re: Kevin B's suggestion of noodles for bday celebrations in general (they symbolize longevity, which is good on bdays as hannaone noted). and if your parents are superstitious, you'll also want to avoid four of anything, since the number four sounds like the word for "death" in mandarin. i know, i know... the list goes on and on!

              for instance.... in the olden days (actually probably among many elderly folks alive, today), chinese celebrate their bdays at the general new years' celebration, since some people consider the exact dates of their bdays to be powerful information needing to be kept top secret. i forget exactly how this is supposed to happen, but some people believe that evil spirits can gain power over you if they know your bday. you'll also want to add a year on to your 'western' age, since chinese people consider you to be 1 year old when born.

              assuming you're only in it for the food, though, ricepad's list is good. (agree with kevinB to skip the shark's fin because the taste is so faint. people eat it for the medicinal value, but as a purely culinary thing, it's not that interesting. on the other hand, i really love the cold meats and jellyfish salad ricepad mentions!) there's a preference for ordering meats (fish, chicken, ducks) whole, if you notice -- so importantly, you'll want to bring a lot of people. eight's a good, round, lucky number of guests!

              (non-rabe) broccoli is not authentic (but it's delicious, so order it if you like). as far as veggies go, popular ones are asparagus and snow peas, sauteed greens like spinach. various mushrooms are also a big deal, but they generally come mixed into other dishes. scallops are popular. crab is popular.

              let me see if i can pull up a list of "imperial" dishes -- since high chinese cuisine generally draws from old school court cuisine. that's where you get a lot of the really interesting, fanciful names, too. a lot of them are rife with symbolism.

              1 Reply
              1. re: cimui

                this list one might be a bit too literal in translation (first class pot is not what you probably think it is), but it's an interesting read: http://www.chinaplanner.com/cuisine/a...

              2. Hey, I go away for a day or so and look what happens. More info! Thanks so much cimui, Ruth and Kevin....We are bringing 10 folks so hopefully that's lucky too. Everyone likes spice/hot. None of the proprietors have mentioned a banquet menu or price yet; I do see that there are set dinners for certain numbers of people but you can't pick your dishes. If anybody is curious, here's the link to what this restaurant carries - it scrolls in the red section under the lunch banner in the center. It's making me awfully hungry!

                Thanks also for the folklore and reasoning behind some of these dishes. Very handy!

                http://www.szechuanchef.com/menu.php

                1. Well, our anniversary Szechuan dinner was a resounding success last night. We had 9 people (oops, unlucky!) and 8 main dishes, plus appetizers and soup. So needless to say we took home leftovers. The restaurant was very crowded, mostly with Chinese I was told - and, the servers seemed to be impressed that we ordered a number of "non-American" dishes. Here's what we had:

                  Green onion pancakes - almost like quesadillas! Hot, crispy and, with the pungent hot/garlic chile sauce, very yummy

                  Pork potstickers - crispier and much better than any I ever had

                  Cold sliced beef with Szechuan salt and pepper - nothing special

                  Tea smoked duck appetizer - bland but good if you like duck

                  *****

                  Pickled cabbage soup with pork and clear noodles - excellent

                  *****

                  Chug gin hot chicken (fried, crispy outside)

                  Whole fish in black bean sauce (I didn't taste)

                  Smoked pork and wild chilies (meaning hot) - too smokey for my taste but everyone else liked

                  Ants in a Tree (noodles with something, kinda bland)

                  Eggplant with garlic sauce - fabulous and a nice sweet counterbalance

                  Dry fried stringbeans - crispy and garlicky and wonderful

                  Cumin lamb - is this really Chinese? It was so different flavorwise, but good.

                  Dan Dan noodles - soupy and not bad, could have been a bit peanuttier