Exhibition highlights Chinese New Year dining traditions

The ongoing exhibition sheds light on the traditional Chinese culture behind those delicious dishes.

An ongoing exhibition on the first floor of the Shanghai Library features Chinese New Year food traditions and dining customs.

When people talk about Chinese New Year’s food, dumplings, fish and a reunion dinner usually spring to mind. But, China’s most important festival is not merely associated with fish and dumplings. 

Every meal has its own meaning deeply rooted in Chinese culture, which expresses good wishes for the new year. 

According to Shanghai tradition, danjiao or egg dumplings, resemble gold ingots, whereas cellophane noodles (fensi) look like silver chains. Soybean sprouts (huangdouya) are similar in appearance to a traditional art object called ruyi, which means “to your heart’s content.” Thus it’s also called ruyi cai.

When friends or relatives visit, it is important to serve “auspicious” food. One such dish for newlyweds is a platter of Chinese dates (zao), peanuts (huasheng), dried longans (guiyuan) and lotus seeds (lianzi). In Chinese language, the dish is referred to as zaoshengguizi, literally meaning “early birth of a noble son.”

Exhibition highlights Chinese New Year dining traditions

Danjiao, or egg dumplings, is a popular Chinese New Year’s dish.

Exhibition highlights Chinese New Year dining traditions

Yuanbao cha, a kind of fragrant tea made from fresh olives

Peanuts are associated with fertility and longevity. Another “lucky” food is yuanbao cha, a kind of fragrant tea made from fresh olives. An old picture of Huxinting Tea House in downtown Shanghai’s Yuyuan Garden in the early 20th century shows a fully packed Zigzag Bridge of people waiting for a sip of the olive tea. Having yuanbao cha, which was named after the ingots, is said to be an auspicious act on the first day of the Chinese New Year.

As time goes by, for those who were born in the 1990s or later, some Shanghai time-honored food brands such as Guan Sheng Yuan, Xing Hua Lou and Lao Da Fang offer a flavor of the past. The same can be said about Chez Louis Restaurant (today’s Red House), one of the most popular restaurants in the city serving French and Italian cuisine during the 1940s and 1950s. 

For those who wanted a modern taste, fast food like KFC used to be a nice alternative. An advertisement in the Xinmin Evening News on December 8, 1989 may well remind viewers of the first KFC in Shanghai, which opened at the former Dongfeng Hotel (now Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund).

Exhibition details

Date: Through March 4, 9am-5pm

Venue: 1/F, Shanghai Library

Address: 1555 Huaihai Rd M.

Exhibition highlights Chinese New Year dining traditions

The Red House restaurant on Huaihai Road M. was one of the most popular Western restaurants in the city during the 1940s and 1950s.

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