Monday, January 16, 2012

Reunion Dinner - Feasting Together

Spring Festival: An important Chinese traditional celebration. [Pic]

Tis the time to greet the spring.

Chinese New Year is also referred to as Lunar New Year (農曆新年) or Spring Festival (春节). It is the most important celebrations according to the Chinese traditions (23 Jan 2012). A reunion dinner (团圆饭) is one of the highlights or should I say, a must, for Chinese New Year celebration.

Reunion dinner brings everyone in the family together. [Pic]

Reunion dinner takes place on the eve (年除夕) of Chinese New Year. Family members who are away from home will make it back in time for the occasion. It is the time for everyone to catch up with each other. This is an important part of the Chinese traditions that helps keep the family bonded. 

The feast is expected to be sumptuous. It is not only for a good time together but also to symbolize a good start of the new year.

Food: Its meaning comes before taste. [Pic]

What to eat?

It is important to include certain symbolic dishes in the reunion dinner.

Symbolization is usually drawn from the name of the dish sounding similar to words that mean good luck, wealth, prosperity and the like.

Dumpling, symbolizes gold ingots. [Pic]

These dishes are pronounced differently in different Chinese dialects. We can expect their significance to vary among the various Chinese dialect groups. Some dishes may also be included because they shape like certain auspiscious items.

Here are some examples:

Fish (鱼,余) - Surplus
Meat balls (圆) - Togetherness
Lettuce (生菜, sang choy 生财 in Cantonese)- Growth in wealth
Bamboo shoots (笋,顺) - Smooth sailing
Sea cucumber (海参, hoy sum 开心 in Cantonese) - Happiness
Green vegetable - Evergreen
Lotus roots (莲,连) - Togetherness
Fresh oyster (生蚝,升豪) - Rising to prosperity
Dried oyster (蚝豉 hou si 好事 in Cantonese) - Good things
Long noodle - Longevity
Black moss (发菜 fatt choy 发财 in Cantonese) - Wealth
Abalone (包余) - Guaranteed abundance
Dumpling (饺子) - Shaped like gold ingots
Shallot (葱,聪)- Wisdom
Celery (芹,勤) - Diligence
Chicken (served whole) - Completeness
Glutinous rice cake or niangao (年糕) - Promotion or progress
Yusheng (鱼生 lohei 捞起 in Cantonese) - Abundance.
(Note: Yusheng is not a traditional dish for reunion dinner but it is definitely a tradition in the making.)

It is fine to finish every dish but one - the fish dish. Some leftover will be intentionally kept aside. This symbolize 'surplus' derived from the Chinese phrase 'nian nian you yu' (年年有余) which literrally means , 'having surplus every year'. 

It is convenient to eat out but not always pleasant. [Pic]

Eat in or out?

It is in the Chinese traditions to be home for the reunion dinner. Nothing beats having dinner at home and truly enjoy the warmth of the family.

However, in this fast-pace modern time, elaborate preparation for the feast is challenging. More people are loving the convenience of eating out. It has become so popular that advanced reservation is highly recommended especially at popular restaurants. In some restaurants in Singapore, diners are given time slots and are expected to complete their meals within the given time.

Yusheng, a tradition in the making. [Pic]

Restaurants are also competing to come up with innovative menus. Dishes are given prosperous sounding name and priced auspisciously, eg. S$388 or S$888. You will never find a reunion dinner package priced at $444. (See Numbers in Chinese culture)

There are only so many families a restaurant can take in at any one time. So, businesses have been quick in coming up with 'takeaway pacakges' giving the best of both worlds. You do not have to dine in a rush with so many strangers around you.  However, this only works if you have sufficient room to accommodate everyone in the family.
Steamboat: An all-time favorite. [Pic]

Cooked dishes or steamboat?

Cooked dishes are wonderful as the ingredients can be prepared in many ways. However, you can only have so may dishes in one meal.

Steamboat (火锅) is a practical alternative to hold a reunion dinner. Everyone can add any imaginable ingredient in the bubbling broth, whipping up every possible combination of good luck and wealth in the soup.

Reunion dinners are being held earlier these days. [Pic]

Literally translated steamboat or huoguo means 'fire pot' in Chinese. It has its name originated from traditional steamboat which uses charcoal fire to heat the pot.

Traditionally, reunion dinner is also known as weilu (围炉) which means circling around the stove. From this, we can imagine how reunion dinner was held during the ancient time.

Traditionally, married daughters are excluded from reunion dinners. [Pic]

Eating with?

Traditionally, children away from home are expected to come back for the dinner. Married daughters will join their husbands and they will return home on the second day of the new year.

In Singapore, (694 km2 / 268 sq mi) nobody lives more than an hour away from another. Married children continue to visit their parents regularly. Given this, the significance of reunion dinner is somewhat reduced to an occasion to feast rather than a time to reunite.

Where possible, parents would want to dine with all their children, son or daughter, married or otherwise. As such, it will not be possible for every family to hold reunion dinner on the eve of the new year. Nowadays, reunion dinner begins a week or two before the actual day.

It is not too early to start feasting now. Happy reunion and wishing you a prosperous Dragon year!

Related articles:

"In the end, life teaches us what is important, and that is family." (Stephen Covey)

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