The other night I was talking to some friends of mine and the topic of allergies and Chinese food came up. In particular, shellfish allergies and Chinese [Cantonese] banquets. If you didn’t know, Chinese banquets consist of a long string of dishes served family style, until your stomach cries out in surrender. Then they bring out a few more. These celebratory dinners often consist of expensive delicacies to symbolize prosperity and bounty.
To really appreciate how integrated shellfish is in Chinese cuisine, try asking servers at restaurants if a dish has shrimp. Count how many times they say no, but when you take a bite you realize it’s full of dried shrimp, or diced shrimp. Or how many times they’ll say “no shrimp, just shrimp rice”. Shrimp rice = dried shrimp. Lesson learned: if it ain’t big honking pieces of shrimp, it’s not really shrimp. You think I’m joking, but I’m not.
As a foodtard, I’m allergic to all forms of shellfish (and often get questioned in awe by Chinese dim sum ladies when they find out… “you mean you can’t eat SHRIMP? how about crab? No crab??? how about lobster? No? No oyster? What about abalone? Waaaahh…”) so have to be very careful when eating at Chinese banquets. Here’s some survival tips from me to you, o gentle reader.
Before the first plate hits the table, explain to everyone at your table that you are allergic to shellfish. Then when that first plate does hit, stock up. It’s going to be a while before you get to eat again. Some people may be annoyed, because when the first plate arrives everyone is starving and you’re breaking normal social convention. But they’ll understand when the next few dishes everyone is feasting and you just sit there with a sad look on your face. This first plate usually consists of roast pork, sliced beef, and other mostly safe items. Invariably in the center you’ll see something clear and stringy. That is jellyfish. It may or may not be safe for you: YMMV.
For the rest of the banquet you will want to keep an eye on what serving utensils are touching which dishes. People often take a serving spoon from a stir fried seafood dish to dip in the fish plate, or take the communal serving chopsticks and grab some lobster before sticking it in the steak plate. Not a big deal to them, but that just irrevocably contaminated some dish for you. I usually ask people to be careful, keep an eye out anyways, and also have a pair of communal serving chopsticks specifically set aside for non-contamination.
The next few dishes are death to you. Crab claws deep fried in a shrimp puree lollipop ball. Spicy salty shrimp. Bird’s nest stir fried shellfish (nest made out of taro nowaday because there’s no more birds nests left). Soup, which typically has some diced shrimp or crab, or shredded scallop added for flavor. Some safe exampleare s are “beef and parsley soup” and “fish head soup”. But safe soup is cheaper soup, and therefore usually not on the menu. You should ask the server what it is, because the danger is not always apparent. When in doubt, skip the soup.
The first dish that typically you can eat is the steak dish. Just make sure that they didn’t cook it with oyster sauce and you should be pretty happy you got to eat something. By now you can take more than your fair share without people giving you the stink eye, as you haven’t eaten anything since that last piece of char siu (roast pork) you pulled off the old Chinese lady next to you’s chopsticks.
You will probably be out of luck again for the next few dishes. Garlic lobster is a staple of Cantonese banquets. Abalone if someone is going all out. Sometimes there’s a vegetarian dish, like a stir fry medley. Usually the last main dish is the fish plate. Often a whole steamed fish, sometimes served stir fry, but fish is another traditional symbolic dish. This is your time to shine! By now everyone else has gorged themselves on the past seven or more dishes, and are starting to turn belly up. Sometimes you can have this whole fish all to yourself. Don’t forget the fish cheeks. I’ve stabbed a hand for one of those before. Sometimes though, you may end up sitting with some piggy piggies who will fight you even for this plate. Relax. There is still some food coming.
By now hopefully you’re reaching your fill as well. You’ve been sitting there for several hours, most of the table around you are quietly entering food coma. Your face hasn’t bloated, your throat is not closing up, and your skin doesn’t feel hot and itchy. You’re doing pretty good. Just a few more dishes to navigate and you can go home epi pen free!
The last few dishes are invariably deep fried chicken (crispy skin), fried rice, and noodles. These dishes will only be picked at, as everyone’s loosening their belts and thinking about their beds. Some people are already sneaking out the door. That’s actually by design. Part of the point of Cantonese banquets is that everyone has filled themselves with so many portions of exquisite dishes that they don’t need to eat rice, noodles, or chicken. You, my fellow foodtard, may be stuck filling yourself with peasant food. The chicken is safe but take a close look at the fried rice and noodle plates before diving in. There’s often some shrimp or scallops in one or both… more often the rice.
That’s it! Unless you lick someone else’s plate or use their chopsticks you’ve made it. Eat those oranges, have some cake. Enjoy whatever dessert soup they put in front of you and savor the taste of foodtard victory.
Bonus Cantonese for you:
Mun gum: allergy
ha mai: dried shrimp
gnaw ho pa: I am very afraid
gow wu che: ambulance