Creating a menu
full of eastern promise
Sam Sangha, managing director of oriental food and drink specialist Asiana Ltd, looks at the history of Chinese cuisine and explains how adding a taste of the orient to your menu offers the potential for increased profits
The past 50 years have seen dramatic changes in the consumer palate. Oriental cuisine, which was once treated with a degree of trepidation, is now a consistent part of diets and menus across the country – making it a potentially lucrative market.
To be successful in the sector, it is crucial to have a thorough understanding of the traditions and theories that blend together to form the dishes of China.
Cooking to an ancient recipe
Today’s style of Chinese cookery stretches back around 5000 years to the time of the Ming Dynasty, combining a long-standing tradition of hospitality and experimentation. More recently, in 500 BC, the philosophy, which to this very day underpins all authentic Chinese dishes, was determined by the philosopher Confucius when he stated that all food should be eaten and prepared with harmony. To achieve that harmony, Confucius believed in striking the perfect balance between texture, colour, flavour and aroma. It is as a direct result of Confucius’s ideas that such a great emphasis is placed on the importance of fresh ingredients in Chinese cookery.
Ying and Yang
Other major influences on Chinese cuisine include the idea of Ying and Yang. The basic principle here is the belief that the universe is held together by the balancing of positive (Yang) and negative (Ying) energy. As a result, the theory can be found throughout all aspects of Chinese life.
In cookery certain foods, including cucumber, watermelon and radishes, are considered to be Ying and have cooling qualities, while at the other end of the scale you have the Yang or ‘heating’ ingredients, which include garlic, ginger and chilli. It is thought that there needs to be a balance between the two in order to achieve a healthy diet.
These ideas of balance are the cornerstone of Chinese cooking and, as a result, the elements of a traditional oriental meal have not drastically changed since the time of Confucius, consisting of rice, soup, and three or four side dishes. It is predominantly through this simplicity and emphasis on appealing to each of the five senses that an ancient form of eastern cookery has achieved such a dominant presence in western culture.
Chinese New Year
Food plays a crucial role in all major Chinese festivals – none more so than Chinese New Year. While this presents restaurateurs with an opportunity for themed evenings and events, some consideration should also be given to some of the traditions involved in order to create a night of authenticity and style.
The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it is also known, is a 15-day celebration, culminating on the eve of the New Year. As the festival is based around lunar months, which coincide with the appearance of each New Moon, celebrations do not take place on the same date each year, although they broadly occur towards the end of January. This year, however, New Year falls somewhat later on 14 February.
Preparations begin about a month in advance and are fairly similar to a western Christmas, with the buying of presents, decorations and food. It is also customary to clean the entire house from top to bottom to rid the home of any bad luck.
Emphasis is placed on peace and happiness and the eve of the New Year is spent with friends and family. Everyone gathers together to enjoy a meal, where it is traditional to wear something red as a way of warning off evil spirits. Dinner is followed by a game of cards and, of course, the obligatory fireworks display at midnight.
2010 Year of the Tiger
Each New Year in the Chinese calendar is represented by one of 12 animal zodiac signs, each bearing unique characteristics that individuals born in that particular year are said to inherit. 2010 sees the Tiger take over from the Ox as the prominent zodiac sign. Tigers are the embodiment of leadership, authority and ambition. At the same time they have an evident softer side, being seen as warm hearted, charming and highly seductive.
Making the most of the celebrations and beyond
Although many specialist Chinese restaurants across the country will be holding celebrations to mark the eve of the New Year on February 14, there is nothing to stop other venues holding their own events, potentially increasing footfall and boosting sales in the process.
Why not hold Chinese-themed evenings throughout the year? It’s something different and running a special event is the perfect opportunity to contact your local media for extra exposure. Consider holding a specially themed Chinese evening with some of the proceeds going to a charity. If you do not get any coverage before the event, make sure you take some good photos during the evening and send them to your local newspaper afterwards remembering to let them know that you were raising funds for a charity.
It is often the little touches that are the most effective, so do not feel that you have to go all out with full-on decorations and a completely Chinese menu. Take the ideas of balance and simplicity and adapt your existing menu by adding an oriental twist.
A great touch would be a ‘tray of togetherness’. Found in the majority of Chinese homes at New Year, it represents the gathering of the family. The tray consists of eight individual compartments, each filled with a symbolic treat. Popular ingredients include melon seeds (symbolising wealth), lotus root seeds (fertility) and, more recently, chocolate coins for a sweet start to the New Year.
Thought should also be given to your bar. Chinese beers are becoming increasingly popular due to their lower price when compared to many western brands, while their smooth and medium-bodied blend perfectly complements oriental food. Offer diners samplers when they arrive to help increase sales later in the evening.
The final day of the New Year celebrations is often marked by a Lantern Festival, an idea that could make a memorable and stunning conclusion to your own event. Chinese lanterns are widely available and make an impressive sight when released into the night sky. However, some consideration should be given to location, as it poses a potential safety hazard if lanterns are launched too close to sensitive areas such as airports.