Edi­tor’s note: To un­der­stand China, sit down to eat. Food is the in­de­struc­tible bond that holds the whole so­cial fab­ric to­gether and it is also one of the last strong bonds of com­mu­nity and cul­ture.

China Daily European Weekly - - Life - By PAULINE D LOH paulined@chi­

You’ve prob­a­bly read all about it in the news — the an­nual ex­o­dus of mi­grant work­ers from the cities. For the past week, mil­lions of Chi­nese have risked smog, snow and fog to hurry home for din­ner. The mi­grant masses would have planned for months and booked their tick­ets way in ad­vance for this cru­cial trip.

To­day is the eve of the lu­nar new year, a day which will start off the Spring Fes­ti­val hol­i­days. The meal we’re talk­ing about is the al­limpor­tant reunion ban­quet, the last din­ner of the year for the whole fam­ily — tu­anyuan­fan.

It is a time-tested tra­di­tion for the ex­tended fam­ily to gather for this din­ner, no mat­ter how far away they’ve gone from home dur­ing the year.

For many in China, this is also the only hol­i­day they get to spend with their fam­ily, when they can re­lax for a few days and catch up with friends, eat, drink, play and sleep late be­fore they go back to the grind.

It is a happy oc­ca­sion, a loud rau­cous cel­e­bra­tion with lots of card games, mahjong and merry-mak­ing. But most im­por­tant of all, it is a time for all Chi­nese to re­con­nect with their cul­tural and culi­nary roots.

It is a time to pay re­spects to the par­ents by ac­knowl­edg­ing and honor­ing the ef­fort they had in­vested in the fam­ily. It is a time to bond with sib­lings and cousins, aunts and un­cles. It is also a time to feast. The reunion din­ner ta­ble will be over­flow­ing with the most de­li­cious tastes of home, all ap­pro­pri­ately named to usher in peace, pros­per­ity, hap­pi­ness and good luck for the new year.

In the frozen north, a feast of fish is the best way to cel­e­brate. Fish is yu, ho­mo­phonic with great abun­dance, and an in­gre­di­ent that is trea­sured for its rar­ity. Huge half-me­ter mon­sters are fished from the frozen lakes and rivers in mas­sive op­er­a­tions that in­volve the whole com­mu­nity.

The fish will be seared, then braised in iron pans with slop­ing sides on which grain pan­cakes will bake, later to be eaten with both fish and pan juices.

Still north of the Yangtze, wheat is the sta­ple and noo­dles and dumplings ap­pear with mo­not­o­nous reg­u­lar­ity at ev­ery fes­tive oc­ca­sion. For the Spring Fes­ti­val, dumplings are part of the menu of com­fort foods.

Jiaozi sounds like the words for tran­si­tion, sym­bol­iz­ing the changeover from old to new. In many places, the home chefs will place lit­tle sur­prises in the dumplings — a red Chi­nese date, a lit­tle sil­ver coin, a cooked chest­nut.

The for­tu­nate bach­e­lor who gets the red date in his dumpling will have a sweet­heart in the new year, while the chest­nut will bring a new baby to the fam­ily. The sil­ver coin sig­ni­fies good luck and pros­per­ity and is prob­a­bly the most cov­eted prize.

For sym­bolic dishes served at the reunion din­ner, no one does it bet­ter than the Can­tonese. Ev­ery dish on the ta­ble is care­fully named so the en­tire menu re­flects an abun­dance of bless­ings. There will al­ways be a whole fish, ni­an­nian

youyu, for abun­dance ev­ery year. This dish is usu­ally saved so it can be served again on the first day of the new year, so the riches of the past year will con­tinue to be en­joyed.

An en­tire pig trot­ter braised with black moss and mush­rooms may be the next at­trac­tion, fa­cai zhushou. This dish rep­re­sents wealth and pros­per­ity. An­other pop­u­lar dish is fried diced seafood and veg­eta­bles wrapped in bean­curd skin and steamed. Th­ese lit­tle “money bags” are called jinyin man­tang, or halls filled with gold and sil­ver.

Dried oys­ters, known as hou-see in Can­tonese, are of­ten cooked with mush­rooms so the busi­ness­men in the fam­ily will find a good mar­ket­place for their prod­ucts and ser­vices. The list goes on. It is nor­mally dur­ing din­ner that the young, un­mar­ried mem­bers of the fam­ily will get their ya­suiqian, red pack­ets of money that will help them en­ter the new year hap­pily and safely.

The fes­tiv­i­ties will slowly peak af­ter din­ner. Once the dishes are cleared and washed, the dough boards will be brought out. In the north, the whole fam­ily will start knead­ing dough and rolling out dumpling skins. Trays of dumplings will be set out, ready for the next day.

Tra­di­tion­ally, there will be min­i­mal cook­ing on the first day of the Spring Fes­ti­val, a time de­voted to wel­com­ing close rel­a­tives and friends to the house. As the fam­ily gather to make dumplings, the tele­vi­sion will be tuned in to the an­nual va­ri­ety show put out by na­tional broad­cast­ers, China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion. It is en­ter­tain­ment de­signed to please the whole fam­ily, with songs, dances, skits, magic acts and the beloved ac­ro­batic and mar­tial arts dis­plays.

If there is an el­derly per­son in the house­hold, the fam­ily will be care­ful to keep bright lights burn­ing as a prayer for longevity.

At 11 pm, the start of the hour of the Rat, the New Year of­fi­cially be­gins and the young ones will gather in gar­dens and back­yards to light fire­crack­ers and fire­works.

For the next 15 days, the nor­mal ban on fire­works will be lifted in all ma­jor Chi­nese cities and there will be fire­crack­ers all day and fire­works dis­plays each night.

The card games, mahjong ses­sions, eat­ing and drink­ing will go on al­most all night, at least un­til the Golden Rooster crows and ush­ers in a brand new lu­nar year.

Here’s wish­ing one and all a peace­ful and pros­per­ous New Year and a very happy Spring Fes­ti­val.


CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: IT IS A HAPPY OC­CA­SION with the ex­tended fam­ily at the all-im­por­tant reunion ban­quet of the year. JIAOZI is a must on the oc­ca­sion, which sym­bol­izes the changeover from old to new. MAHJONG is the ic­ing on the cake.

PIG TROT­TER is a pop­u­lar dish at the reunion din­ner, rep­re­sent­ing wealth and pros­per­ity.

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