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Restive festive palates
( 2004-01-17 11:19) (China Daily)

What to eat and where to go for Spring Festival Eve dinner is occupying the minds of many urban Chinese families, with the Lunar New Year only several days away.

Although it is the most important dinner of the year, celebrating, above all else, the family reunion, the increasing variety of choices is making it harder with each passing year to decide on venue and menu.

Beijing roast duck

"In the past, my mother took care of everything, usually shopping for meats, fish and vegetables a few days before the Lunar New Year," said Zhu Yingnan, a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

But at supper on January 14, xiaonian, or Small Festival Day on the lunar calendar, Zhu said his mother proposed that with Zhu's sister now abroad, the family of three eat out on Lunar New Year's Eve.

"She says we need to try something new," he said. "However, my father still thinks that home is the best place to have the big dinner."

Zhu's mother has always been the "sous chef" of the family Lunar New Year's Eve dinners in the past.

While turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, and plum pudding with hard sauce are the usual fare for Christmas dinner in the West, Zhu's mother's family menu always included chicken, fish, pork, beef and vegetables.

"The day before New Year's Eve, she usually marinated and then simmered a big cut of beef, which was sliced and served cold on the festival eve," Zhu recalled.

After shopping for some New Year's paintings in the morning of the last day of the old year, she would start cooking in the afternoon.

"Then we had a gorgeous dinner and watched the Spring Festival shows on television," Zhu said.

At 11:00 pm, the whole family, under the father's baton, would get busy all over again, chopping meat and vegetables to make different fillings and kneading dough to make jiaozi, or dumplings.

"We are all good at making jiaozi," Zhu said. "We start eating them just at the beginning of the Lunar New Year to the accompaniment of the ringing of bells."

Eating jiaozi on New Year's Eve is a must for most families in the northern part of China, including the northeastern provinces.

According to Chinese tradition, the turn of the year takes place -jiao in Chinese - between 11:00 pm and 1:00 am, or zizhi one of the tradition twelve time periods into which the day was divided. Thus, people must eat jiaozi (jiao plus zi) to confirm their departure from the old year and to receive the blessing of the new year.

"It would never do to pass New Year's Eve without making and eating jiaozi," Zhu said.

Although it will still take a few days for the family to decide where to have dinner, Zhu said, "We will surely make jiaozi at home late at night to greet the New Year."

Sold-out restaurants

Unlike the Zhus', many families in major metropolises such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Nanjing have made reservations at star restaurants for New Year's Eve this coming Wednesday.

These restaurants offer special Festival Eve dinners.

Shao Ximing, sous chef of the Sichuan Restaurant in Nanjing, told the local media that by early this week, more than 1,000 seats had been reserved at his restaurant. The minimum cost for the Festival Eve dinner is 680 yuan (US$82.9) for a table.

Nanjing's Deyuelou Restaurant is offering "take-out" set-dinners, and says it has already lined up some 1,500 customers.

In Guangzhou and Shanghai, most of the leading star restaurants have already secured full houses for the night.

The set dinners in Guangzhou are priced at from 2,000 yuan (US$244) a table, to as much as 10,000 yuan (US$1,210) or more.

For those who still want to eat at home, local home services in Chengdu and Guangzhou have opened phone lines for people to call in to hire chefs to come to their homes to prepare their Lunar New Year dinners.

On January 14, the Guangzhou Home Service Centre, an organ within the local Women's Federation, sponsored a contest involving 300 chefs, 30 of whom won the title "Star Chef" and are ready to go to people's homes, where they will deep-fry, stir fry, boil, simmer or steam whatever the family orders.

In Chengdu, the local women's federation is advertising the services of four middle-aged women and men who are currently unemployed but who have fine cooking skills and are willing to serve families on Lunar New Year's Eve.

Among them, Jiang Huayou, 40, is a chef with 12 years experience. In a telephone interview with China Daily, he said he can offer up to 20-odd cold dishes as appetizers and more than 20 main entries.

"I can do whatever customers require - spicy hot or light," Jiang says.

He is especially good at decorating his creations. "People nowadays want more fresh, new and creative dishes," Jiang explained. "Sauteed pork and pockmarked grandma's beancurd (mapo doufu, or stir-fried beancurd in hot spicy sauce) are too common for the Lunar New Year dinner table."

He says he will work at two homes on Lunar New Year's Eve. When his customers start the customary festival dinner at 6:00 pm, he will go home to prepare his own family dinner.

"We are a small family, my wife, my 17-year-old son and myself," he said.

A chicken, mutton, and possibly prawn or crab will be the essential ingredients for Jiang's family dinner. "From the chicken I will be able to make a soup, a cold appetizer and a hot dish," Jiang said.

But Jiang will not include fish for his family. "I once cooked nothing but fish for two years and I eventually ran out of tasty ideas."

Kong Fanrong, 47, earned her "sous chef" title at last year's Spring Festival. She not only cooks standard Sichuan dishes, but is also skilled at making jiaozi.

This year, she and her husband, Huang Zuhua, 50, and a chef with the local Pockmarked Grandmother Chen (Chen Mapo) Restaurant, have offered to cook festival dinners in homes.

"I've already sent my daughter to my sister's home in suburban Jitang County," Kong told China Daily in a telephone interview. "She is on vacation from her college studies."

Kong says that she believes a festival eve dinner must include fish, a traditional symbol of wealth in China.

Whatever people fancy eating, they don't have to worry about where to get the necessary ingredients.

The days - more than 30 years ago - when urban teens and their parents had to stand in long queues to buy rationed meat, fish, candies, and even peanuts are long gone.

Families are smaller now. It is rare to see big families of two, three or even four generations gathering for a huge festival eve banquet.

People enjoyed those old reunions, but now only nostalgic memories remain.

An essay by zsm231119 posted on Sina.com web, especially recalls the writer's grandmother, who made very tasty pork dishes.

"Her jiasharou, or pork stuffed with bean paste was delicious," he says. "After a large chunk of pork - usually with fat and skin - was boiled and well-done, she would cut the meat into thick slices, and then slice a pocket from one side into which she would stuff a filling made of sugared bean paste slightly spiced with pepper.

"Then she put the stuffed slices into a steamer and steamed them for some time.

"They were sweet and savoury and not the least bit greasy."

Sweet memories and delicious flavours still linger, while families and restaurants are coming up with new creations.

Whatever they are, they will surely provide people with joy and fun.

Bon appetit!

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