Welcome to the Lin family reunion dinner. China is a nation of foodies who advocate the notion that “food comes first,” and what is served during the most anticipated feast of the year – the Lunar New Year reunion dinner – is just as important as the unity of the nation.
A perfect reunion dinner will have an elaborate choice of dishes that will bring a family good luck in the year ahead.
So to give Asia Times readers an idea of what is involved, I have laid out the Lin family menu for this New Year’s Eve dinner. My family hails from Guangdong province in southern China, so dinner for families in other regions will be different.
Poached chicken with spring onions in garlic and ginger sauce
This dish is essential because not only does it ring in the Year of the Rooster, it also adheres to an old saying in China – “No chicken, no feast.” So a dish of tender chicken with a spoonful of the flavorful oil made from ginger, spring onions and garlic raises the prestige of the reunion dinner up a notch instantly.
Spring onions and garlic are always preferred for the Spring Festival feast because of the special meanings they carry. The Chinese word for spring onions is cong (葱), a homonym of the Chinese word for smart (聪). The word for garlic – da suan (大蒜) – sounds almost the same as plan (打算), but the tones are different, and it is included in the dish to give hope that everything the family has planned this year will be realized.
Delicate-cooked whole fish
Fish, whatever species or however it is cooked, is also a must for the reunion dinner. Fish in Chinese is yu (鱼), which shares the same pronunciation as surplus (余), so we must serve it but dish is kept on the table untouched during New Year’s Eve.
The next day, when the New Year has arrived, we still have a whole fish, which symbolizes abundance and affluence for the year ahead. The idea is captured in the Chinese idiom – Nian Nian You Yu (年年有余) – that says we will live a prosperous life every year.
Braised pork knuckle with sun-dried seafood
The sparkle in this dish is the sun-dried seafood, usually a combination of dried black moss and oysters.
The hair-like moss, known as fat choy (发菜) in Cantonese, sounds almost identical to the word for making a big fortune (发财). The black moss grows on barren land in northern China.
However, the popularity of fat choy has led to environmental problems such as desertification of land, which forced the government to ban harvesting of the moss since 2000. People can still buy fat choy because shops still carry stock from before the ban.
The dried oyster, which is called hou si (蚝豉) in Cantonese, is pronounces similar to “good things” (好事). Pork knuckle sounds similar to the word (就手) in Cantonese, which means to easily obtain or win an object, usually money, in this case.
Braising these ingredients together in a dish suggests people will make a big fortune or come across good things without exerting much effort.
Five-grain bumper harvest
This dish comes from a Chinese idiom – Wu Gu Feng Deng (五谷丰登) – in which wu gu means five grains and feng deng means a bumper harvest.
So a stir fry of five grains and vegetables – corn, pine nuts, celery, cashew nuts and carrots – symbolizes a productive year ahead.
Stir-fried fresh vegetables
For my family, the greens will be either lettuce or spinach. If we are to follow Cantonese tradition, the region where I was born and raised, lettuce is the best choice. Its pronunciation in Cantonese – sang choy (生菜) – is similar to sang choi (生财), which means growing rich. (Note: choy has a flat tone, while choi has a low tone.)
But to follow the convention of Chaozhou (alternatively transliterated as Chiu Chow or Teochew), a coastal city in Guangdong province where my parents come from, spinach carries an auspicious meaning. In Chaozhou dialect, spinach has a nickname – fei long (飞龙) – which is literally translated as flying dragon.
Sweet dessert of lotus seeds and lily bulbs
A sweet soup simmered with lotus seeds and lily bulbs is also a good choice. For example, lily bulbs are called pak hap (百合) in Cantonese, which could be interpreted as “everything meets your expectations.”
Rice cake, or nian gao (年糕) in Chinese, meaning Lunar New Year cake, is the first choice for dessert. Because the Cantonese word for cake is gao (糕), a homonym of the word for high (高), eating this on New Year’s Eve symbolizes achieving one’s ambition for a job promotion or higher salary in the coming year.
It should be noted that these are just some of the dishes that can be served and there are many more. What matters most is that the family shares in the love and joy of a carefully prepared and symbolic reunion dinner.
As we say in my home province of Guangdong, Kung Hei Fat Choi (Happy New Year).