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As the moon starts to wane each January, people throughout China frantically snatch up train and bus tickets, eager to start the return journey to their hometown to celebrate the Lunar New Year (春节, chūnjié) with their family. One of the major draws for migrant workers heading home is the chance to eat traditional, home-cooked meals.

You won’t get through a conversation about Spring Festival, as the holiday is also known (“Spring Festival” is the literal translation of chūnjié), without a local waxing poetic about the holiday’s dishes, which vary region to region but have one very important thing in common: delicious symbolism. These festive meals pull double duty, using allegorical shapes and homophones to add prophetic wordplay to family dinners.

On Chinese New Year’s Eve (除夕, chú xī), which takes place this year on February 9 – the final day of Year of the Dragon – the first task at hand in most households will be folding dumplings (包饺子, bāo jiǎozi) by the hundred. Dumplings resemble ancient gold ingots and thus represent wealth. To bolster the metaphor, Chinese mothers tuck a coin or two into a few of them; the lucky ones who bite into the dumplings with money will be blessed with a very prosperous year. They are typically stuffed with pork and vegetables, though some non-pork-eating minorities use lamb or beef instead. If you’re in Shanghai and don’t have a Chinese mom cooking up dumplings, head to Dongbei Siji Jiaozi Wang, which reopens on February 15 to serve their steaming platters of boiled (but coinless) dumplings from China’s Northeast provinces.

Sometimes called Reunion Dinner (团圆饭, tuányuánfàn or 年夜饭, nián yè fàn), New Year’s Eve Dinner is a big holiday feast day, typically with eight dishes and one soup (eight is a lucky number that sounds like the Chinese word for wealth). Whole fish (鱼, ) with the head and tail intact are used to symbolize abundance (余, ) and to complete the phrase “There will be abundance (fish) every year” (年年有余/鱼, niánniányǒuyú). Similarly, steamed glutinous rice flour cakes (年糕, niángāo) bring eaters a year of higher prosperity (年高, niāngāo), and even vegetables get in on the homophonic action, with lettuce (生菜, shēngcài) standing in for the verb “to make money” (生财, shēngcái).

As China grows wealthier, the nouveau riche are abandoning the idea of a home-cooked meal in favor of lavish banquets at the hotel restaurants and famous chains that stay open during the holiday. One restaurant chain alone, Shanghai Min (often better known by its Chinese name Xiao Nan Guo), which has more than 30 locations around town, served 16,000 Spring Festival diners at annual company banquets in the lead-up to the holiday this year. And prices are steep: Tables of 10 at Shanghai Min start at around RMB 2,888 (about $460) and top out at RMB 8,888 ($1,420) for a banquet with more than 20 courses of cold dishes, hot dishes, soups, noodles and desserts.

For an authentic dining experience that won’t break the bank, Lao Fan Dian is the place to go for Shanghainese cuisine. Opened in 1875, the restaurant offers four price points, ranging from RMB 1,188 ($190) to 3,988 ($640) per table, for its classic dining experience. (Note that, as at Shanghai Min, prices are based on tables of 10 and they are unlikely to prorate for smaller parties.) No matter which option you pick, you’ll have the chance to try the venue’s famous steamed duck (八宝鸭, bābǎoyā) stuffed with “eight treasures,” including shrimp, ham, bamboo shoots and lotus seeds.

New Year’s Day, which lands on February 10 this year, is a day of visiting family and friends around the village. Like a generous Halloween tradition, the custom is to give children red envelopes stuffed with money at each stop, as well as candies, fruits and nuts that the adults also nibble on while they wish their neighbors a prosperous new year. Tangerines (桔, ) are easy-to-peel homonyms for good luck (吉, ) and are, conveniently, at the peak of their season just as Chinese New Year arrives. Pumpkin seeds (南瓜子, nánguāzǐ) are another popular snack eaten on New Year’s Day, as the Chinese name recalls a slang way of referring to the traditionally more desirable male child (男娃子, nánwázi).

With many restaurants and markets shuttered for the holidays, families have to plan ahead to make sure they eat well throughout Spring Festival. As a result, it’s not unusual to see whole split fish or ham hocks drying on laundry lines in the days leading up to the holiday. Shanghai locals also visit places such as the pop-up dried fish and poultry market on Danshui Lu (where most of the “fish” is actually conger pike, a type of eel) and the year-round pork purveyor Jufeng Cured & Salted Pork Shop to stock up on all the preserved goodies they could possibly need. At Guang Ming Cun, hungry diners wait for hours to take home tasty soy-sauce-braised duck (酱鸭, jiàngyā) and smoked fish (熏鱼, xūnyú). Guang Ming Cun is closed on the afternoon and evening of Chinese New Year’s Eve but reopens for the rest of the holiday, to keep you and yours well-stocked until the rest of the city puts the fireworks away and stops celebrating.

Shanghai Min
Address: 4/F, Unit 2, 579 Waima Lu, in the Cool Docks
Telephone: +86 4008 209 777
Lao Fan Dian
Address: 242 Fuyou Lu, near Lishui Lu
福佑路242号, 近丽水路
Telephone: +86 21 6311 1777
Pop-up Cured Fish & Poultry Shop 
Address: 218 Danshui Lu, near Fuxing Lu
Telephone: No phone
Jufeng Cured & Salted Pork Shop
Address: 190 Wulumuqi Lu, near Anfu Lu
Telephone: +86 21 6437 1608
Guang Ming Cun
Address: 588 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Chengdu Nan Lu
Telephone: +86 21 5306 7878
(photos by UnTour Shanghai)
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