Ritualistic dining

By Lu Chang

Shanghai Star. 2005-01-20

THE Chinese are a superstitious people and the most important event of a year, the Lunar New Year symbolizing the beginning of spring, is bound up with many customs related to ghosts and other supernatural phenomena.

People set off fireworks on the eve of the new year so the whole family can remain safe and lucky over the coming year.

Recently, there have been reports that many young couples have abandoned any idea of getting married in 2005, thinking that to marry in the year of the rooster would result in bad luck.

Every detail of these special days should be marked, by wearing red clothes and putting red lanterns at the gate, for instance. Dining during the holiday also has a very special festive flavour.

The most common approach is to give all the dishes auspicious names, such as jin shang tian hua (with a double portion of good fortune) or jin yu man tang (abundant wealth or many offsprings in the family).

As a custom carried on by overseas Chinese, especially those in Southeast Asia, lao yu sheng can be seen as an important ritualistic element of the Spring Festival celebrations.

It is actually an appetizer, consisting of mixed salad and raw fish, including slices of colourful vegetables such as radish, ginger, cucumber and carrot. Salmon is the most frequently used fish in yu sheng but on some luxurious occasions abalone takes its place.

All the ingredients are neatly arranged in a large bowl with two red envelopes placed on top of it. One is filled with sesame and the other, with pepper, instead of money. One of the diners at the table opens them to spread the sesame and pepper into the bowl. That is taken as a good omen symbolizing a rich and fruitful new year.

A key part of the ritual attending this dish is that every diner around the table should stand up and raise the fish and other ingredients with their chopsticks. The higher they can be lifted, the better the ensuing good fortune. The first morsel lifted represents career success, the second represents wealth and the third is for romantic love in the coming year.

During this process, the ingredients are well mixed together with the chef's secret sauce, which mainly consists of peanut butter, and can be served as a salad. There is nothing too special about the taste - it is quite bracing and juicy - but people should try to think of it as absolutely special and delicious in the hope that their dreams will come true.

Another Spring Festival special is the glutinous rice cake made into the shape of a fish. The pronunciation of fish (yu) in Chinese is the same as remaining, so the presence of a fish at a festival dinner stands for the idea that the wealth and goods people will have are so abundant that they can never be used up.

In Macao, people celebrate the festival by eating dou lao (a type of hot pot), which is pronounced in a way similar to duo lao (to obtain much money, good luck, good health or whatever you want to have) in local dialect.

In contrast to the more usual hot pot, the base soup should be rich and tasty, made by stewing shark's bone and chicken. I doubt whether the restaurant called God of Food really used shark's bone in the soup, because it was being sold at a discount for only 27 yuan (US$3.25) and I tasted the acidic dryness that MSG inflicts on the tongue.

There are very few dou lao restaurants in Shanghai. The one on Tianyaoqiao Lu in the Xujiahui Area has the straightforward name Dollar Shop, connoting the meaning and sound of dou lao.

Most dou lao soup is not very spicy and goes well with seafood and beef. The meat balls with tasty and succulent fillings make the best choice at the God of Food.

For "yu sheng"

Mandarin Pavilion

1225 Nanjing Xilu

Tel: 6279-1888 ext. 5301

For "dou lao"

God of Food Restaurant

2525 Pudong Avenue, Pudong

Tel: 5038-3013

Copyright by Shanghai Star.