New Year’s Eve Meal 年夜饭, also known as nian ye fan or Reunion Dinner, gathers the whole family in front of the table for the satiation of the hearts and stomachs. As the central focus of the holiday is gathering, food not only communicates love and devotion to one’s family but lures everyone together through one common dish– or fish. Home cooks pour attention and detail into the menu, where each region hosts its own specialties but unify in their allusion to blessings, prosperity, and happiness for the coming year. Dumplings resemble gold nuggets for prosperity, long noodles for longevity, rice cake for its implication of promotion, leafy vegetable for its homophony with the Chinese word for affection, fish for abundance, chicken for luckiness, duck for harmony, jujube dates for the early arrival of Spring, persimmons for a wish come true, almonds for happiness, and tofu for family blessing.
This year, my family decided to cook Beer Braised Duck, also known as Pi Jiu ya, in addition to steamed fish.
Particularly, the Chinese character of fish (鱼—yú) has the same pronunciation as the character余, meaning “surplus” or “extra”. The typical lucky phrase that accompanies the Chinese New Year fish dish is 年年有余 “nian nian you yu,” wishing you to have a surplus of food and money every year.
Families typically buy a whole fish, symbolizing unity and harmony, and steam it with ginger and green scallion. Half of the fish is eaten at the New Year Eve dinner, and the second half is saved for the next day (the New Year Day) to express hope for a new start and to finish with surplus. Some family cook a big-head carp but only eat the middle, leaving the head and tail intact. During dinner, the head of the carp should always point toward the distinguished guest or the elder to show respect for elders. People can enjoy the fish only after the distinguished guest or the elder take their first bite.
Finish off the meal with some fresh persimmons. You’ll need it.