Reunion Dinner

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The most important festival in the Chinese calendar is the Spring Festival (春节, chun jie). Occurring on the first to fifteenth days of the Chinese calendar, it marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. On the eve of the Chinese New Year ((除夕,chu xi), families gather together to partake of the most traditionally important meal of the year- the reunion dinner (团圆饭,tuan yuan fan). In days of yore where we Chinese multiplied with the tenacity of Fibonacci rabbits on intravenous Red Bull, the reunion dinner was a loud and boisterous event, organized by the eldest family and attended by everybody from the toothless great-grandaunt to the nephew-you’ve-never-met and his pet turtle to boot. Family members would stream home from wherever they may be for this mother of all meals. This may sound pretty tame, but to a China citizen, it means enduring a commute that likely spans thousands of miles among tens of thousands of travelers desperate to race home (see here and here).

Where I’m from, the reunion dinner is a less heart-pounding affair. For as long as I can remember, my parents have always prepared steamboat (a type of soup fondue) for this meal. It is a hot, imprecise, chaotic affair, bound to drive the likes of Martha Stewart into an apoplectic seizure. At the end of the meal, your skin is sticky with a patina of perspiration, your face feels as if it has been spa-ed and tenderized at the same time, and courtesy of your well-meaning parents (“Eat more! Eat more!”), your waistline has also expanded with the reckless abandon of a drunken and boundlessly randy sailor.

And yet, it is a tradition precious among all others, my opalescent bulwark against the relentless march of time. For long after the perspiration has dried and the extra pounds lost, the susurrus of memories remain – the easy camaraderie of family, the optimism of a new year and your parents’ age-old behest to eat more, eat more.

Chinese Steamboat
Chicken Stock
– 2 pounds (approx 1kg) chicken bones
– 1 whole onion, skinned.
– 1.4 gallon water (approx 5 liters)

1. Pre-boil the bones and discard the water. This helps to keep the stock clear later. The more hardworking among us may choose to strain the stock later instead.
2. Put the bones, the water and the onion in a large pot.
3. Bring to a boil and lower the heat to a simmer.
4. Simmer for 3-4 hours.
5. Every hour, check and skim the foam off the surface if present.
6. *Resist* the temptation to further season the stock. It’s meant to start off plainer than what you’re probably used to.
7. Transfer the stock into an electric cooker or a pot on a hot plate. Ideally, it should be a wide and low pot. The stock is a base in which everyone cooks their own food, communal style. If you have problems with this or do not have such a pot, you could also cook everybody’s portion on the stove.
8. The ingredients which come next are entirely up to you. This is like the stone soup- simplest recipe ever. The general idea is to use bite-sized, thin portions of seafood and meat. As the meal progresses, the stock will be sweetened from cooking the food. I will list what my family typically uses. Your mileage may vary.

The Ingredients
Julienned meat (unseasoned)
– Pork
– Chicken
– Grouper
– Sea Bass
– Salmon
– Tilapia
– Beef
– Abalone

Seafood
– Scallops
– Prawns (unshelled- they sweeten the soup)
– Surimi fish paste/ sticks
– Fish maw (you will need to preboil this – acquired taste)
– Prawn dumpling (you should be able to get these in most Asian supermarkets)

Vegetables/ Miscellaneous
– Chinese Cabbage
– Spinach
– Sliced Carrots
– Sliced Corn
– Glass noodles
– Mushrooms (Shitake, Enoki – nothing too woody)
– Firm tofu
– White radish

Sauces (not for marinade but as individual dip for the cooked food)
– Light soy sauce (any Japanese market would have this, although it is slightly different). Add sliced chili for a spicy kick.
– Sesame sauce (Kraft has them)

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