I live on the East coast of China now, and I think a penny is beginning to drop, but I'd like to check with people who may know more.
At a Chinese meal, domestic or restaurant, there are lots of dishes on the table at the same time (contrasting with the sequential meal structure used in the West). So the question is whether there is a structure to the way these are eaten.
My impression is that it goes like this. ---
a/ Rice (fan) is the centre
b/ The immediate accompaniments (cai 1) are soup and pickle
c/ The fancy accompaniments (cai 2) are the dishes described in cookbooks and promoted at restaurants.
One clue is Chinese table setting --- immediate accompaniments are placed to the right of the rice and behind it, and are individual; while fancy accompaniments are placed in the middle of the table, and are communal. Another is (nearby) Korean and Japanese table settings, which seem similar.
So what can look unstructured actually isn't?
Any thoughts appreciated,