Published: 11:33, February 9, 2024 | Updated: 17:44, February 23, 2024
When Truffle Buddha Jumps Over the Wall
By Li Yingxue

Chinese New Year menus showcase distinct culinary traditions while mirroring the common concept of auspicious beginnings


Li Cheung, 52, the head chef at Xin Ming Yuen restaurant in Beijing, cannot forget how his family used to celebrate Spring Festival. For his mother, this used to be the busiest day of the year, and largely spent in the kitchen. Preparations started much earlier; she would start planning for the lavish spread on the 26th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar.

“My mother would embark on a shopping spree, procuring a plethora of ingredients such as sea cucumber, fish, pig’s trotters and an assortment of candies and snacks,” Li recalled fondly. “For desserts we arranged rice cakes, melon seeds, pistachios and more.” 

Growing up in Kowloon, Hong Kong, Li often accompanied his mother to buy things in the run-up to Chinese New Year. “We would buy dried abalone, fish maw, and preserved meats at Wing Lok Street. For candies, we went to the bustling Garden Street in Mong Kok,” Li said. His mother specialized in making poon choi, as well as rice and radish cakes.

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“Initially, poon choi used to be made by putting together leftovers from Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner in a big pot. We’d continue enjoying it the next day,” Li recalled. 

As he grew up and their living conditions improved, poon choi turned into a stew with various ingredients, a special dish prepared specifically for Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner. It kept getting better over time.

“My favorite was the thousand-layer cake. It’s very complicated to make, so we always ordered it from outside. We had to order in advance, such was the demand. In Hong Kong, the Indonesian Chinese would make the best ones,” Li said.

Li also remembers how pastries were meant only for guests coming to wish them a “Happy New Year”, but how he could not resist biting into one when his mother was not looking.

After dinner, Li would receive red envelopes from his grandparents and then join local kids in playing games and exchanging greetings in the neighborhood.

In China, Spring Festival dinners showcase regional diversity through distinct culinary traditions. While common fish and chicken delicacies grace tables in both the northern and southern regions, the northern custom of relishing dumplings sets it apart. 

A combination of roasted duck and chicken. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Despite regional differences, the unifying theme is that each dish symbolizes auspicious beginnings and good fortune. The shared essence of New Year celebrations is the coming together of families to mark the most traditional festival.

Li, who has been a chef for 34 years, moved from Hong Kong to Beijing four years ago. Some patrons Li has served in Hong Kong are now regulars at his Beijing restaurant. Those who are unable to return to Hong Kong for the Spring Festival holiday also choose to celebrate it at Li’s place, enjoying the authentic flavors from their hometown.

This year, Li prepared dishes with auspicious names such as the “Prosperity and Wealth” dish, made from abalone and goose feet. There were also radish and taro cakes. “The radish cake my mom makes has a unique taste with plenty of radish, preserved meats and less flour. It may not always have a perfect shape, but the flavor is exceptional. At restaurants, chefs usually focus on getting the presentation right,” Li said.

At his restaurant, Li strives to replicate his mother’s recipe, to give guests a taste of home. “Even my wife follows my mother’s recipe for making radish cake at home.” 

Stir-fried Chinese kale with black garlic. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Nostalgia seemed to be in the air this year. Television drama Blossoms Shanghai, directed by Hong Kong-based Wong Kar-wai, is set in 1990s Shanghai and its phenomenal success is drawing people to Huanghe Road and the Fairmont Peace Hotel on the Bund, in Shanghai, for a taste of nostalgia.

Zhao Renliang, a chef from Shanghai with 60 years of experience, started his career at the Peace Hotel. In recent years, he has spent Spring Festival working at the restaurant serving Jiangsu and Zhejiang cuisines at Legendale Hotel, Beijing.

Noticing a growing interest in Shanghai cuisine because of the TV drama, Zhao offers a special Chinese New Year fare, keeping flavors from Shanghai city and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces in mind.

One dish that stands out is the yifanfengshun (plain sailing). Zhao chose to use large shrimps for this traditional Shanghai dish made of rice cakes and hairy crab, in order to do away with the messy crab shells.

“Eating rice cakes is a must during Spring Festival, as it symbolizes joy,” Zhao said. 

Shrimp, chicken and fish dishes grace tables in both the northern and southern regions in China. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

A common feature of New Year dinners in Shanghai is a hot pot with diverse ingredients such as egg dumplings shaped like gold ingots in both color and form. Zhao has included a similar hot pot — with rich ingredients like sea cucumber, abalone, pork tendons, shiitake mushrooms, and handmade fish balls — in this year’s Spring Festival menu.

Cui Daiyuan, a writer and culture scholar, said fish is the common delicacy to relish on this occasion in Beijing. “The fish must be whole, symbolizing a smooth and complete year. It’s often soy-braised or cooked as a sweet and sour dish, both of which give it a vibrant red color, which holds auspicious meanings. Traditionally, carp is chosen as it is the epitome of good luck.” 

However, many families also opt for mandarin fish or sea bass. In some regions it is common to find a wooden fish, carved and painted red, on the dinner table.

Cui mentions a special local dish called doujiang in Beijing, which is jelly-like and made by simmering diced carrots, dried tofu, celery, soaked yellow soybeans and strips of pigskin. It is meant to accompany drinking.

After dinner, during the Spring Festival, families usually make dumplings using vegetable fillings. These dumplings, named “Wugeng dumplings” denoting the period from 3 am to 5 am, are to be enjoyed in the early hours of the second day. After eating them, it is a tradition to go out and visit relatives and exchange New Year greetings. People in Beijing typically gift a box containing various snacks, Cui said.

Shrimp, chicken and fish dishes grace tables in both the northern and southern regions in China. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In Northeast China, dumplings, usually filled with meat, are a must-have during the festival. Ren Pangbo, the general manager of the Fengtian restaurant in Shenyang, Liaoning province, noted that people in the region traditionally prepare pig trotters, chicken, and pork knuckles for the festival.

Meatballs are also essential on some dining tables in the Northeastern region. Ren explained that households typically make two types of meatballs. The “Four Happiness Meatballs” are the size of an apple and similar to the lion’s head meatball in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. However, unlike the clear broth used in those regions, the Four Happiness Meatballs are deep-fried, and then stewed in a thick soup. Made in sets of four, they symbolize the four great joys of life — happiness, wealth, longevity, and good fortune.

The other type is smaller, about the size of a coin. Families make them with either meat or vegetables such as sweet potato or shredded radish. 

Ren also mentioned a less common type of meatball made by wrapping minced meat in tofu skin, cutting it into sections, dipping in a flour-based batter and deep-frying. Locals call these “qianzi”, symbolizing the wish for many descendants and abundant blessings.

In Northeastern China, there is a unique custom of celebrating the birthdays of those turning 60 or 80 that year on the sixth or eighth day of the first month of the lunar calendar, regardless of their actual date of birth, Ren said.

Shrimp, chicken and fish dishes grace tables in both the northern and southern regions in China. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Spring Festival kept Ren busy this year, as he traveled to Fengtian restaurant branches across the country. He noticed a growing appreciation for Northeastern cuisine both in northern and southern regions while also noting the varying customs people follow in different cities.

“In Shenyang, the New Year’s Eve dinner is typically enjoyed in the afternoon, with restaurants being busiest from 2 to 5 pm,” said Ren. “In Shenzhen, a migrant city, most people leave for their hometowns during the Spring Festival holiday. So, the restaurant’s Shenzhen branch turns busy around the sixth day of the lunar year, when people return from their hometowns.”

With tourism in Northeast China booming this winter, Fengtian restaurants, which specialize in local cuisine, have become a must-visit for tourists in Shenyang. Ren hopes to use the restaurant’s Northeastern delicacies to help more people understand and experience Northeastern culture.

In recent years, going out or ordering takeout meals became popular during the holiday. 

Li Ran, the chef of JW Kitchen in JW Marriott Hotel Beijing Central, has three years of experience preparing takeout dinners on the occasion. He carefully selects dishes that can remain fresh for long after they have been delivered.

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Li started preparing the takeout menu for this year’s festival four months in advance. He has created innovative and labor-intensive dishes like “Truffle Buddha Jumps Over the Wall”. Notably, he replaced the usual cake for bird’s nest pudding to cater to people’s evolving taste.

Another highlight is fish that is fried till the head and tail curl. The fish sauce is packaged separately, allowing customers to pour it over the fish before enjoying the meal. 

“This attention to detail ensures that customers can savor professionally crafted delicacies while celebrating the New Year with their loved ones at home,” Li said.

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