Festive family fare in Shanghai
Updated: 2016-02-06

Food has been an integral part of Chinese culture for centuries. Besides providing sustenance and nutrition, food is also associated with numerous other things, such as being an indicator of social status or wealth, a badge of one's identity as well as a means of fostering harmony and closer ties to family and friends.

The last aspect of food is especially relevant duringthe Chinese New Year. The reunion dinner, which falls on the eve of the Spring Festival, is regarded by most people as the most important event during this holiday period. Naturally, the food that is prepared for this momentous occasion has to be more extravagant than usual, and housewives will go to great extents to fill their dinner tables with a wide variety of dishes.

Ask 100 Shanghainese people for a list of the things they traditionally eat during the Lunar New Year festivities and you're likely to be presented with 101 different answers. After all, the menu varies from family to family and is largely dependent on local tradition and customs. However, there are certain dishes with special meanings that will almost always be prepared. Here are some of them.

1. Appetizer: Tasty and crunchy, lobster chips are a favorite snack almost every family will have. But despite what its name suggests, these chips aren't actually made from lobsters. Instead, its great taste comes from fresh fish or shrimp that is mixed in starch before being fried to a crisp. Eating lobster chips used to be considered a luxury that was reserved for important festivals andentertaining important guests. These days, however, they are seen as a nostalgic throw back to the old days when food was scarce.

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Lobster chips

2. Cold platter: The number of dishes in the cold platter must always be an even number as this is believed to be auspicious. Because they are always prepared and laid out on the table ahead of the dinner, they are often eaten as an appetizer that whets the appetite before the real feasting begins. Staples include smoked fish, dried and steamed eel, wheat gluten and a variety of mustard greens tossed with bamboo shoots in sweet and sour sauce. The last dish is guaranteed to be found on the tables of all Shanghainese households.

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Cold dish: Shanghai-style kaofu

3. Main dish: Being the highlight of the feast, the hot dishes are expected to surpass the cold ones in quality and quantity. A perennial favorite that can be found in most homes is the stir friedshrimp. A fish is also a must-have as its Mandarin pronunciation can be translated to "surplus", which suggests that the family members will have a bountiful year ahead. Even the most ordinary looking of vegetables will be garnished with mushrooms and nuts in order to impress.

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Stir fried shrimp

4. Soup: Few people would have space left to stomach any more food by the time the soup is served, which is usually between 8 and 9 pm. However, everyone will nevertheless oblige with a bowl as this is seen as a form of "borrowing good luck". Egg dumplings (mini omelettes stuffed with minced meat and shaped like gold ingots) can be found in the soup and they are supposed to mean good luck and fortune. The soup will at times also include meat, fish, mushroom balls (to represent family solidarity) and vermicelli (longevity).

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Egg dumpling soup

5. Dessert: Boiled rice dump-lings are always the last to be served, usually in conjunction with blaring firecrackers and the sounds of A Night to Remember (the last song played during the four-hour-long Spring Festival Gala every year). Everyone is expected to polish off a bowl of dumplings before they call it a night as it signifies that everything will be sweet and smooth-going for the rest of the year.
 

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Sweet dumpling

 

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