Home thoughts for nianyefan: restaurants set to rescue reunions

Li Anlan
Last year's nianyefan did not go as planned because of COVID-19, and this year's looks likely to suffer the same fate. But restaurants are coming to the rescue with deliveries.
Li Anlan
SSI ļʱ

the traditional nianyefan, or Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner, is the most important reunion meal for Chinese people, and it’s an opportunity to celebrate the Spring Festival with their families.

For restaurants, it’s been a profitable business, as larger families opted for dining out to spare themselves from days of preparation, cooking, organizing and cleaning. Tables usually get booked very early, and popular locations are usually sold out a couple of months in advance.

But a year ago, the novel coronavirus epidemic outbreak canceled the festive celebrations, restaurants refunded customers and suffered great losses, while people stayed home and figured out ways to cook their own reunion dinners.

The pandemic was quickly brought under control, and life gradually returned to normal. Restaurants in Shanghai enjoyed more than six months of booming business, and the National Day holiday break last October especially showed a rebound in tourism and consumption. As life continued worry-free, reservations for the New Year’s Eve dinner were selling out quickly.

Home thoughts for nianyefan: restaurants set to rescue reunions
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The New Year’s Eve reunion dinner is Chinese people’s most important event of the Spring Festival celebrations.

In January, the new locally transmitted cases in Shanghai once again raised alarms for the public, as the Year of the Ox is arriving in less than a month. In several stories Shanghai Daily reported last week, there are residents canceling their reunion dinner reservations, making the tough decision to suspend the family tradition, once again, in line with the city’s advice to keep gatherings below 10 people. Many families are larger than that.

And it’s also affecting restaurants, with many now offering nianyefan take-out packages, deliveries, semi-prepared cooking kits and pamper baskets as alternatives, a plan B to save their business.

Hotels have been hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year. With the tourism and convention/exhibition business recovering slowly, New Year’s Eve dinner promotions were a big opportunity to boost business. Some customers hadn’t actually chosen to cancel their reservations last year, they simply postponed them to 2021 to support their favorite restaurants.

Otto Goh, executive chef at the Kerry Hotel, Pudong, has created two reunion dinner baskets for four to six people featuring dishes such as roast duck and suckling pig that are ready to be heated and served as centerpieces for hosting the dinner at home. Festive items such as glutinous rice cake, craft beer and cured sausages complete the meal. In the past few days, after the reports of locally transmitted cases, he’s seen a 20 percent increase in the sales of the two sets.

As more people are choosing to eat at home, sales of easy-to-cook sets and prepared meals are growing quickly, as holiday dishes require lots of time and technique. The city’s restaurants are offering different menus and portion sizes — smaller portioned meal sets are selling well, too, with many people choosing to stay in Shanghai for the holiday instead of traveling back to their hometowns.

The chefs at various restaurants such as the Sunya Cantonese Restaurant have been working round the clock to meet the demand for meal sets.

According to Ele.me, Alibaba’s delivery service, the number of searches for “New Year’s Eve Dinner” surged in recent weeks, so getting a delivery is also an option that even avoids the step of heating up the food at home.

Home thoughts for nianyefan: restaurants set to rescue reunions
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Spring rolls

The nianyefan tradition

Spring Festival has a history of over 4,000 years in China, and New Year’s Eve is the most important part. Nianyefan is a tradition that many Chinese people value greatly, the family event is not only about celebrating the achievements of the past year, but also welcoming the new year with hope.

The dinner, whether enjoyed at home or in restaurants, is served in a more leisurely style and pace than other banquets, as everyone in the family enjoys the holiday vibe, shares stories of the year while watching the New Year Gala on CCTV, which has become a tradition since it was first broadcast live in 1983.

As for food traditions, each region has its own — in northern China, jiaozi (dumplings) are served at midnight, while niangao (rice cake) and tangyuan (rice dumpling) are preferred in southern China.

There are some dishes enjoyed nationwide for their lucky meanings. For example, the Chinese word for fish and the word for abundance share the same pronunciation, yu, so a whole fish dish is a must-have for most families, symbolizing prosperity and “more to come” in the new year.

Home thoughts for nianyefan: restaurants set to rescue reunions
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Tangyuan, glutinous rice balls

And the pronunciation of rice cake implies “getting higher year by year.” The auspicious meaning has made rice cake a holiday essential.

With jiaozi, a traditional fun game is to place a few coins or nuts (for hygiene nowadays) in the filling. Whoever finds them is said to have extra luck waiting ahead.

In some regions, people would enjoy a meal of “spring pancakes,” or chunbing, to mark the start of spring. The thin pancakes are served in various stir-fries in shredded form, like bean sprouts, spinach and scallions.

Families that cook the nianyefan dinner at home often also have special dishes for the occasion, recipes that have been passed down for generations or something that everyone enjoys eating.

Making the reunion dinner more extravagant is the purchase of a centerpiece dish such as pencai, an assorted stew of upscale delicacies including abalone, sea cucumber and fish maw.

Home thoughts for nianyefan: restaurants set to rescue reunions
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Pencai, the sumptuous stew

For the holiday food shopping list, cured meats/sausages are definitely must-haves. They can be served alone after steaming or be incorporated in other dishes to elevate the flavors.

The sales of snacks, candies, nuts and preserved fruits also go up before Spring Festival, as they are the perfect treats to enjoy while chatting with family members.

Mandarin oranges are a fruit that Chinese families in the south enjoy during the holiday season, as they are considered a lucky fruit for having the pronunciation of ju, similar to ji, or luck.

A quick review of Spring Festival taboos

Like many festivals, Spring Festival has some taboos rooted in ancient superstitions, and older people still follow the traditions, varying from region to region, to “avoid trouble” in the new year.

• No visitors on Chinese New Year’s Eve: it’s a time for family reunions.

• Avoid haircuts or shaving the head in the first lunar month.

• Be cautious, don’t drop or break things as it’s considered very bad luck.

• Be extra tolerant with children during the holiday.

• Finish cleaning the house before the Chinese New Year to symbolize a fresh start.

• Don’t wake people up from their sleep on the first day of the lunar year, it’s bad luck.

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