A simple Chinese meal in prosperous times consists of four dishes and a soup and rice, noodles or steamed bread, no matter how many there are in the family. All the food is put on the table at once, including the soup, and the diners help themselves from the dishes as they please. When you are planning such a meal to cook and eat at home there are a few rules of thumbs to bear in mind. Always think of the meal as a whole - it will be eaten as such - and choose the dishes to compliment and contrast each other. Choose different main ingredients for each dish (pork, chicken, fish, bean curd, beef or vegetables, etc.). Vary the texture in the dishes by choosing recipes with different-sized pieces of food, different colors and, most important, different cooking methods, such as stir frying, steaming, stewing, braising, oven cooking, etc. Variations in the sauces and seasonings can add enormously to the 'interest' of the meal.
Another very important element in planning a Chinese meal at home is the problem of time: it is foolish to choose a meal for which every dish is going to require a great deal of last minute attention. Always allow plenty of time when cooking Chinese, particularly if the dishes are unfamiliar to you. It may be a good idea to base you Chinese meal on one dish, not more important than any other, around which you can build the rest of the meal. So if you choose a stir-fried dish, such as stir-fried chicken with beansprouts, ham and mushrooms, which need last-minute attention, you might choose a stew (beef stew, perhaps) to go with it which needs none.
A braise such as pork with green beans will wait in the oven for a few minutes while you finish the stir-fry, and a cold dish such as a few minutes while you finish the stir fry, and a cold dish such as Chinese cabbage salad can be made well in advance of the meal. A soup such as liver and watercress may need cooking at the last moment, but it will not require the cook's active participation.
A formal Chinese dinner comprises many more dishes, served in separate courses according to a fairly strict pattern. These dishes are more elaborate than those served in family meals. The general pattern of a formal dinner is, first, four small cold items, then four stir fries or quickly cooked dishes all served at once, followed by four big dishes each served separately; they usually include at least one big soup, a whole bird or large piece of meat and a whole fish. Other 'filling' dishes such as fried rice or noodles or even "jiaozi" can be served at the end of a big meal for anyone who is still hungry.
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