Often in Shanghai when dining in a large group you do so with a large lazy Susan at the center of your table. Throughout the evening, the servers place shared dishes of all sorts on the disk and it’s a culinary free-for-all from then on for each platter.
It rotates to eliminate the hassle of passing plates around the large group, though it often causes more problems than it solves. To resolve some confusion, I have devised a list of the most basic rules for handling this dining style.
Wait for it…
Wait until a well-rounded set of dishes have been set at the table. Usually when you first sit-down for this serving-style, a few small pickled dishes and a teapot are the only things at the table. Go ahead and pour yourself a cup of tea and wait for the rice to arrive. The rice comes out after a few dishes are served and usually signifies a reasonable time to begin. When in doubt, wait for someone else to be the first.
Look before you turn
Sure, the steamed dumplings on the opposite side of the table look really good, but regardless, if you just blindly spin the 'Susan, you could be the cause of dinner table mayhem. You didn’t realize how spicy the eggplant would be and you needed that water bottle ASAP, but your rotation has caused Li You to spill the soup and JohnJohn to drop his chicken in his neighbor’s tea. Now the napkins are wet, it smells of lamb, and you can feel numerous glares that sting more than your spicy tongue. All because of your reckless abandon.
Let it lie
You are eating in front of people now. Yes, the lazy-Susan is just far away enough to force you to stretch. Yes, you may be new to chopsticks. But if you drop that carefully selected sweet teriyaki morsel, let it lie: it’s gone now. On my first week here I dropped a beautiful glossy dumpling on a visibly clean table. I, without hesitation, reached for it. My native-Chinese friend stopped my chopsticks with his own. "Leave it." He looked disgusted.
Sharing is caring
Sharing among several people who, in my case, are often "growing boys" can be frustrating. And considering that many places I have visited in China already have a limited amount of dishes palatable to the western tongue, I all too often go hungry. However, on the other end, the dishes don’t belong to you. Even if it’s "totes your fave," you should eat a portion of the dish that aligns with what fraction you are of the fellow-commoners.
Survival of the fittest
Finally, screw the politeness. There is no "please, you first" when eating from a rotating trough. It is not the time to put others before you. It is not the time to wait to get a little hungrier before you begin. No lady-like pecking at your food. You eat when everyone else eats or you won’t be eating tonight.
Enjoy and impress!