Traditionally, Chinese families would gather for a feast one day before the start of the Lunar New Year. This meal is known as "tuan yuan fan" (团 圆 饭) , or literally "Reunion Rice", rice being the main staple of the Chinese. It is also translated as "Reunion Meal" or "Reunion Dinner", since it is almost always eaten after nightfall as the last meal of the old year.
This is one of the most important meals for the Chinese, and many Chinese living away from their homes would make special effort to attend this meal with their families, as the Chinese place a lot of emphasis on being reunited with their family members especially for this day. The reunion dinner should be eaten with all immediate family members present as a symbol of strength and unity in the family. Some Chinese make it a point to eat this meal also with their in-laws and extended family members. This is a time to renew and reaffirm family ties.
There is usually an abundance of food prepared for this meal, even by poorer families. The Chinese believe that having an excess of food on the table symbolises good fortune for the New Year, as it would bring excess wealth. Some families would make special effort to save up money throughout the year in order to prepare a good reunion dinner. Some traditional food or meals that would be prepared are:
- "Jiao zi" (饺 子), or dumplings. Meat and vegetables are wrapped not with rice but with a skin made of flour. This is a food commonly eaten as a meal by itself in Beijing or northern parts of China today. Family members would participate in making the dumplings, which can be eaten throughout the New Year.
- Steamboat dinner, or "huo guo" (火 锅). This is popular in Singapore and Malaysia. A family sits around a pot of steaming soup, place uncooked pieces of food into it and fish it out when it's ready. This is an easily prepared dinner, since all is needed is to prepare the uncooked food and the soup.
- "Fa cai" (发 菜), or black moss, is eaten as the name of the moss sounds like "to become prosperous" in Chinese.
- Raw fish salad, or "yu sheng" (鱼 生), may be consumed. This dish is not found in China, but in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Its name sounds like "growing luck". This dish is also eaten on the 7th day of the Lunar New Year.
- "Nian gao" (年 糕), also known as year cakes, may be fried to usher in the New Year. This is a sweet, sticky and glutinous cake, which the Chinese believe that would make the New Year sweet.
- Meat. Some Taoist or Buddhist families might abstain from meat throughout the New Year. However, for poorer families, this might be the only time of the year when they can eat meat in abundance. A kind of preserved meat, called “rou gan” or dried meat, is popular during this season. Some people might prepare tamarind and star anise chicken.
This list is definitely not exhaustive, as many Chinese communities living around the world may have their own unique food or dish for the reunion dinner. Traditional foods for Chinese holidays and celebrations is a good node to visit if you want to find out more.
Many families now choose to have their reunion dinner in restaurants instead of staying at home, because they would not have to prepare the food and do the washing-up. Because of this, many Chinese restaurants are fully booked during this day. Some popular restaurants even have a timetable which customers have to strictly adhere to: 6pm-8pm for one batch of customers, 8pm-10pm for the second batch, and 10pm-midnight for the third batch.