Imagine a sip of red wine followed by a gulp of hot soya milk with a nibble of chewy shredded jellyfish and shrimp in between.
When Chinese provincial governments host banquets for foreign delegations they pull out all stops to impress the guests with multiple meat and fish courses and expensive alcohol.
A recent Chinese media report estimated that government officials spend nearly 30 billion dollars of funds on formal dining and drinking. Sometimes, the customary drinks list can take time to get accustomed to.
This week in the southeast industrial city of Changzhou near Shanghai, visiting Indian businessmen walked into the government banquet hall as the waitresses were topping tall tumblers to the brim with hot soya milk.
Wine glasses stood beside the soya milk and plates laden with chicken, pumpkin, brocolli and mushroom.
“The soya milk must be a special local product,’’ speculated the guests, nearly all men, as they toasted with wine, then meekly sipped the unsweetened hot drink as a formality. Some further confused their taste buds by drinking bitter green tea from a third glass.
Foreigners in China are wary of buying domestic milk since last September when leading brands were found guilty of selling milk contaminated with tonnes of an industrial chemical called melamine.
Last week, two people were executed for their role in the nation’s worst toxic food scandal that killed six babies and sickened over three lakh. The scam sank milk companies but boosted the sales of soya milk.
When this correspondent asked an official if soya milk was a special part of such formal dinners with seating charts, she looked puzzled and replied that the drink is the ‘fashion’ in Changzhou, ‘especially for ladies’.
Changzhou, unlike Beijing and north China, does not have centrally heated buildings. The over four million health-conscious residents drink soya milk as a source of energy during winter, the way Indians consume litres of lassi during summer.
Guests at Chinese banquets are expected to finish each of the rapidly replaced courses with gusto and follow the instructions of the host. “Now the lunch is over,’’ a Chinese host abruptly stood up to announce after half-an-hour. Immediately, everyone bustled to drop the chopsticks and walk out on the soya milk.