Traditional and innovative dishes on table for nianyefan

Hu Min
Shanghai's time-honored restaurants have promised traditional meals and innovative dishes for the year's biggest family feast.
Hu Min
Traditional and innovative dishes on table for <i>nianyefan</i>
Hu Min / SHINE

Sunya Cantonese Restaurant at Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall is packed with people on Wednesday.

Is there anything more important for Chinese people than a family reunion dinner on the eve of the Lunar New Year? The packed railway stations and long lines at restaurants across the country give he answer.

The Chinese New Year's Eve dinner, or nianyefan (年夜饭), is the biggest meal of the year for Chinese people to celebrate the year's achievements and accomplishments and greet the new year with aspirations and resolutions.

This meal, whether grand or small, is a ritual for the Chinese to welcome the new year.

Shanghai's oldest Cantonese-style eatery, Xing Hua Lou Restaurant, will serve pencai to guests.

Pencai (盆菜), an assorted stew of premium delicacies such as abalone, sea cucumbers and fish maw, is mainly seen on dining tables in Guangdong Province and Hong Kong SAR. It has recently found acceptance in Shanghai.

The ingredients are simmered first and then boiled in a special soup.

"Pencai has a very auspicious meaning in Chinese, indicating joy, reunion and harmony," said Wang Xiaping, catering manager of Xing Hua Lou in Huangpu District.

"The plate used to put the cuisine on is round. The ingredients are laid layer by layer, connoting family reunion, harmony, joy, fortune and good luck in the Chinese culture," she explained.

This year, the restaurant's specialty dish will be roasted pork.

For the best effect, the pork is chosen, sauced and then put at a certain temperature for 24 hours.

"The pork is put on the stove to make the skin crisp, which implies good luck and flourishing business in the Lunar New Year," Wang explained.

Traditional and innovative dishes on table for <i>nianyefan</i>
Ti Gong

A nianyefan dish served by Xing Hua Lou features abalone, sea cucumbers and fish maw.

The restaurant is crowded with people buying nianhuo (年货 New Year's goods) these days.

"These are some must-eat Spring Festival delicacies for Shanghainese, and purchasing New Year's goods at the restaurant is a family tradition," said Zhang Yafang, a lady in her 50s.

"In fact, my best childhood memories are selecting New Year's items with my parents. Unfortunately, they can't come here because of age," she said.

Yang Jing, a Shanghai white-collar worker, has secured a table for 10 at the restaurant for her family's nianyefan.

"It is a tradition in my family to dine here on Lunar New Year's Eve, but for the past years we couldn't do it because of the pandemic," she explained. "The elderly are delighted to return this year as it is not only a meal, but also a feeling of ritual and a pleasant family reunion."

The 96-year-old Sunya Cantonese Restaurant at Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall has been fully prepared for the Spring Festival.

On the menu are babaofan (八宝饭 steamed sweetened glutinous rice with eight distinct ingredients), niangao (年糕 glutinous rice cake) and songgao (松糕 soft and fluffy rice cake filled with red bean paste).

Danjiao (蛋饺 egg dumplings) and tangyuan (汤圆 glutinous rice balls with sweet or salty fillings) are also on the menu. Danjiao is a must-eat because its golden colour and ingot shape are thought to bring wealth and happiness.

Kaofu (烤麸), or wheat gluten, is another must-have item for Shanghainese because its name means "richness" in Chinese.

Traditional and innovative dishes on table for <i>nianyefan</i>
Ti Gong

A pork dish served by Xing Hua Lou for the nianyefan table

"We also have quanjiafu (全家福 hodgepodge) and babaoya (八宝鸭), which are both popular New Year's dishes in Shanghai," executive chef Huang Renkang said.

Quanjiafu is a soup made from more than a dozen premium ingredients, including sea cucumber, abalone, scallops, fish maw, cured ham, tendons, lamb hock, pork trotter, pigeon eggs, chicken, duck, bamboo shoots and pork.

Babaoya, or eight-treasure duck, is a classic Shanghainese dish that features a sumptuous stuffing of glutinous rice, sweet peas, cured ham, shrimp, bamboo shoots, chestnuts, scallops, chicken gizzards, mushrooms, and pork meat.

The dish is both savory and sweet, and it is often served as a centrepiece at more formal occasions.

To appeal to the tastes of the younger generation, the restaurant has for the first time introduced a barbecue meal set for takeout.

It offers roughly 10 different food, including skewered squid, fish cake, mutton nuggets, shrimp and streaky pork.

"Innovation is the soul of time-honored restaurants, and we keep up with the trend to attract young consumers with new sets launched every year," Huang added.

The restaurant is fully reserved for Chinese New Year's Eve dinner.

"Despite all the ups and downs of last year, it is a fantastic conclusion to the year and a good start to the new year," Huang added.

Traditional and innovative dishes on table for <i>nianyefan</i>
Hu Min / SHINE

A busy scene at Sunya Cantonese Restaurant

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