With Chinese New Year gatherings coming up, you may find yourself either hosting a dinner or invited to a gathering. Today, we’re going to talk about party hosting tips from a Chinese mom’s perspective. We’ll also talk about how to be a good guest!
Our family loves hosting parties. Even though we know there’s a lot of planning, buying, prepping, cooking, cleaning, and socializing involved, nothing beats seeing a gleeful crowd truly enjoy each other’s company and the fruits—foods?—of our labor, whether it’s a family-get-together or a small dinner party amongst friends.
By the time Sarah and Kaitlin were around 15 and 13 respectively, the four of us had pulled together enough large family dinner parties that they’d started coordinating the majority of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner productions from then on.
That’s because for me and Bill, teaching the girls how to be good guests and good hosts was just as important as learning how to tie their shoes and much more than just saying please and thank you.
To this day, Bill still fondly remembers his mother’s generosity with guests. Plus her ability to throw the best neighborhood mahjong nights anyone had ever been to. Part of this is our Chinese heritage. But for me, a good amount of it is just good manners and common sense.
Over the years, the little lessons imparted from generation to generation have made all of us pretty good hosts. And with the changing generations, I hate to see these good practices die out. So we’re humbly sharing some tips you might find beneficial, as a host or as a guest.
If you’re worried about cultural Chinese customs in particular (say, with in-laws, a first meeting with your partner or friend’s family, co-workers, or neighbors) you can’t go wrong if you follow our tips!
As a host:
If you’re playing the part of host, here are the biggest party hosting tips to keep in mind:
- Select dishes that can be premade, and/or partially prepared, to leave more time to socialize with your guests upon their arrival. A Chinese meal comes in a very specific format—multiple dishes are set on the table and served family-style. The meal is admittedly a bit more complex than your standard Western protein, starch & vegetable plate. If you’re cooking Chinese, this means a lot of washing and chopping before guests arrive. You want everything to hit a hot wok or steamer in relatively quick fashion, without requiring your full attention for too long. The food should be beautiful and piping hot when it hits the table, and having your mise en place ready to go goes a long way. You might also consider dishes that can be served cool or at room temperature like White Cut Chicken and Cucumber Salad, or a braise like Red Braised Pork Belly, that can stay warm on the stove while you do other things. Also think about dishes you can make in a variety of cooking vessels (perhaps something steamed in a steamer, roasted in the oven, stewed or braised in a pot, a soup, and a couple dishes in the wok), so that your wok isn’t doing all the work. Too many wok dishes means cooking a succession of dishes in the same vessel—many dishes will have gone cold by the time you’re done with all that wok cooking!
- Make a little more than you think you need (or…a lot more). No one wants to miss out on a dish, mull over the last piece of chicken, or forgo a second bowl of rice. We’re also used to having guests pack a doggie bag to enjoy at home, so just enough food means there wasn’t quite enough! When planning a Chinese meal, you’ll be serving multiple dishes family-style. Make sure you have enough of each dish to serve all of your guests as a part of larger meal. If serving an item like spring rolls, for instance, budget 1-2 per guest!
- Pay attention to variety as well as quantity. A boatload of 1 to 2 dishes is nowhere as nice as 2-3 main courses with a couple of sides. If money is tight, opt for tasty but reasonably priced cuts of pork and humble vegetables that have the potential to transform (e.g., cabbage). Delicious appetizers like dumplings or cold noodles are easy to prepare in advance and will give you a head start on filling everyone’s appetite. And take comfort that people are there to see each other, not just eat the food!
- Artfully plan the menu for any guests who have allergies or special diets, so they don’t feel like the oddball out or like they need to make sacrifices. For example, a vegetarian “main” can still be a delicious side for the omnivores.
- Graciously accept guests’ offers to bring food, dessert and/or drinks. Even if you are a self-proclaimed control freak, trust me, you’ll feel better having someone help share your task load, and they’ll feel important and will be saved some of the conundrum of what to bring. If you find yourself with a guest who never offers, a gentle prod in the right direction is fair game. A tiger mom’s work is never done.
- Since we are talking about family-style meals, it is important to use public serving utensils. Avoid using your own chopsticks to help others with food. Contrary to what you might think, gong kuai, or serving chopsticks are increasingly standard in China these days. (Though with close family, we can be a little more forgiving of everyone eagerly digging into something with their chopsticks.)
- Pay attention to seating and guide people to ensure a lively party. Mix the introverts with the social butterflies. Families who see each other all the time should have a chance to talk to other guests at the party.
As a guest:
Going to a gathering? Here are some of the etiquette guidelines I’ve taught my daughters!
- The cardinal rule: Never arrive empty-handed. Something for the gathering and a little something just for the hosts are necessary (particularly in Chinese households) and always appreciated. Perhaps it’s a special dessert, a bottle of wine or liquor, a basket of fresh, in-season fruit, a lucky money plant, or a bouquet of flowers. If your host is Chinese from an older generation, opt for a live plant rather than cut flowers, which have a more negative connotation. Avoid white flowers, yellow flowers, or mums. Bright colors are most auspicious. Try a colorful orchid, red amaryllis, lucky bamboo, money tree, or jade plant.
- Offer to bring food, drinks, or dessert to ease the host’s burden of cooking for a large group. When in doubt, put in the effort of your own good judgment, taste, and generosity rather than flooding the host with open-ended, last-minute questions about what kind of wine or dessert to bring, which can add more stress to planning and hosting the gathering.
- Dress preferably in cheery colors, especially for holidays. Those conscious of tradition always appreciate a dash of red come Chinese New Year. Somehow, Chinese elders always seem to be happier when they see their progeny in bright colors. Avoid wearing all black or all white. If you do, you might get some unwelcome fashion tips and life advice from grandma. (Okay maybe that’s just our grandma.)
- Be on time. Later than 30 minutes is considered rude. Do call if a delay is unavoidable.
- Take off your shoes at the door. This is especially important among Asian households!
- Make a point to say hi to everyone. For the shy and introverted, do your best to address people by name and/or the correct respectful Chinese family titles. (Sarah and Kaitlin struggled with this when they were young.) Part of this is avoiding too much solo time (e.g., being on your phone or plopping in front of the TV), or exclusively talking to one side group.
- Don’t start eating until the hosts have sat down and ushered everyone to eat. If there are elders at the table, offer to serve them first or wait until they’ve had the first pick of the food.
- Don’t be a picky eater, and, conversely, if you like something, don’t gobble or hog it. See what’s on the table, mentally divide by the number of the party, and eat within your share. Avoid spooning too large of an amount onto your plate before others have had a chance to try some. Further into the meal, after everyone has picked over a dish, anything left becomes more fair game. And it should go without saying, don’t recreate any scenes with soy sauce from The Joy Luck Club.
- Don’t eat and run. It seems obvious, but offer to help, and take your tasks seriously. Doing small chores like collecting dirty plates off the table will be much appreciated by your host, and many hands make light work! And even if you get shooed off, the offer always counts. What’s more, it’s just no fun if you leave right away, as hosts have limited downtime to socialize with guests after the meal has been served.
- Reciprocation is a great quality. Offering to host next time is always appreciated and can be the best parting gift.