Five Tips for Overcoming Dinner-Partyphobia
by Martin Yan
There are all kinds of books that will tell you how to have a novel kind of dinner party by creating a classic Chinese banquet-style meal. They'll give you tips on how to plan one dish per person plus rice. How to balance meat, poultry, vegetables, and seafood. How to balance hot and cold, sweet and savory. Even how to make your own fortune cookies. Now, as a Chinese chef, I love these books. I've even written some of them! But that's not what we're talking about here.
Reality check: When was the last time you planned a formal banquet-Chinese or otherwise-at your house? If your answer is "last Saturday," congratulations. You are a devoted culinary artist and a master entertainer. But if you re like most people I know, even the thought of planning a potluck with one other family makes your heart start beating irregularly.
There's the shopping, the cleaning, the cooking. And what if the food turns out badly? Or people just sit here staring at their plates, with only the occasional clink of a knife and fork to break the awkward silence?
Well, as far as the cleaning part is concerned, you're going to need to get over that one yourself. But I can offer a few suggestions about how to make entertaining a little easier and a lot more fun-especially if you're planning an Asian meal.
- Remember, you are not a restaurant.
In Asia, kitchens are usually tiny. They're really only set up to feed a single family. People often use restaurants to entertain guests, and when they do entertain at home, they have no choice but to keep things fairly simple. Good idea. Restaurant meals are wonderful, but that doesn't mean you need to apply those standards to your cooking! Take it from someone who has cooked in restaurants: What your friends want when they come over to your place is a relaxed, home-style meal.
- Plan ahead to avoid traffic jams.
Planning a meal is all about figuring out what foods will taste good together and make up a satisfying whole. But if you want to have any fun at your own party, it's equally important to think about traffic flow in the kitchen. Can the soup and the clay-pot dish be made ahead? Can you make the rice in the rice cooker to free up a burner? Can you really make two stir-fries in quick succession? What about an "interactive" dish, like Mongolian Hot Pot that gives you a breather while the guests cook their own food?
- Put the guests to work.
There's no better icebreaker, and besides, your load is instantly lightened. In our house, we almost always leave a few things for the guests to do. The adventurous ones get to roll out flatbread, chop veggies, or fill dumplings. The more timid ones stir the soup. One beer later, they've usually switched places!
- Set yourself up for success.
I've gotten spoiled by my show. Those hardworking people in the back kitchen set out all the ingredients for each dish on a separate tray, all nicely measured and ready to go. I recommend this technique for home entertaining, too, particularly if you're preparing an Asian menu. With a kitchen full of guests, you've got enough on your mind without having to search for that box of cornstarch you could swear you bought last year.
Yes, cheat. You are a busy person. It really is okay to round out a meal with some delicious frozen potstickers or to use a high-quality store-bought sauce here and there. You have my permission. One tip, though: It's best to confess up front before anyone finds out!
Entertaining can be a lot of work, it's true. But it's also an act of true generosity that makes you and the people you care about feel good. Just remember: Stay loose, keep things casual, and do what all great entertainers do-keep smiling.
Martin Yan's Feast:
The Best of Yan Can Cook
By Martin Yan
Bay Books, San Francisco
400 pages, 75 color photos
Publication date: October 1998
Recipe reprinted by permission.
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This page created February 1999