PETALING JAYA: Malaysians may now be spoilt for food choices with trendy new offerings such as nasi lemak burgers, poke bowls and bubble tea, but when it comes to Chinese New Year reunion dinners, old traditions hold firm.
Full of symbolism and superstition, the dinner held on the eve of the Lunar New Year gathers family members from near and far to celebrate the upcoming year.
It is the most anticipated meal on the family calendar.
Although it has traditionally been held at the home of the family patriarch, the many hours of preparation that go into cooking the dishes mean that restaurants and hotels are increasingly playing host to these meals.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the significance of the dishes served.
A whole fish symbolises abundance, a chicken represents unity and noodles stand for longevity. These and other metaphors remain the foundation of the annual feast.
“Most people want to enjoy the same food they had during their childhood, so there hasn’t really been a lot of change in the menu throughout the years,” said Sally Chia, captain at the Dynasty Dragon Seafood Restaurant at IOI Mall, Puchong.
“The most important thing is that families get together to celebrate.
“The best dishes are always served at the reunion dinner, and a lot of the symbolism comes from the pronunciation of ingredients which sound similar to wishes such as health, wealth and happiness,” she explained.
Cindy Low, captain at the Hai Peng Crab House, Old Klang Road, echoed Chia’s comments, noting that the dinner holds tremendous symbolism which elder family members insist must be maintained.
“Abalone, sea cucumber and scallop are among the must-have delicacies as they represent good fortune, luck and new opportunities,” said Low.
“The reunion dinner remains a very traditional affair filled with superstition. This is especially true for the older members of the family.
“While some people may go for new flavours, most people still prefer old-fashioned food.”
Loh Kam Loon, chef at a restaurant along Old Klang Road, said that ingredients such as fish, prawn and mushroom have remained mainstays of reunion dinners for generations and are not likely to change anytime soon.
“There hasn’t really been much change to the reunion dinner menu,” he said.
“Although there may be requests that dishes be cooked with ‘new’ sauces such as asam pedas or three-flavour (spicy, sour and sweet), people’s taste buds have generally stayed the same.”
Lai Jian Wei, executive chef at Four Points by Sheraton Puchong, said that while tradition still holds sway over the dinner, he has observed changes in the sauces used for cooking, with more modern sauces replacing traditional ones such as soya or teo chew.
Lai has also successfully modified traditional favourites such as yee sang tossed salad by including octopus and substituting plum sauce with a sauce made out of dragon fruit.
“Most people are not looking for new food during the reunion dinner,” said Lai. “Certain concepts are now more stylish than before, but their essence remains the same.”
Stressing that no reunion dinner dishes have gone extinct or are less popular than before, Lai said that the menu depends on the demand for these delicacies.
Buddha Jumps Over The Wall or Buddha’s Temptation is an example: a luxurious Fujian hotpot. The legendary dish has up to 30 premium ingredients including shark fins and lips, Jinhua ham and quail eggs.
“We need to boil the stock for 12 hours and since there are a lot of dry ingredients which have to be soaked, we might need two or three days to get everything prepared,” said Lai.
The name Buddha Jumps Over The Wall is an allusion to the fabulous aroma of the dish cooking, so enticing that vegetarian monks leapt over the wall of their temples to enjoy the meat-based dish.
It is said that so delicious is the taste that even Buddha himself would jump over the wall for a bowl.
Want to try it? “We can cook it,” says Lai. “It just depends on whether there is a market for it.”