Food served during the Chinese Lunar New Year is full of symbolism. A platter of citrus on the table, for example, isn't just there because it looks pretty—having fresh fruit around the house signifies liveliness, good fortune, and luck. Of all the New Year celebrations, perhaps none other is suffused with more culinary symbolism than the eve of the New Year. Also known as the Reunion Dinner, it's the most important meal of the days-long festival. Family members travel back home for the feast, which marks the start of the celebrations.
Most Reunion dinners will include a whole chicken with both the head and the feet. This symbolizes prosperity, as well as having the family come together. Abalone with dried oysters, shiitakes, and black moss is also another significant dish. Abalone, shiitake, and oysters—especially dried oysters—symbolize good luck, while black moss, which is a type of algae that resembles black hair, stands for an abundance of prosperity.
And you'll be sure to find a whole fish. When I was growing up, my mom would always purchase and cook two fish. One was meant to be eaten on the eve and the other was saved for New Year's day. I had always assumed that she prepared them together to avoid having to shop and cook the same dish two days in a row, but it turns out that there was a meaning behind her actions: It's said that it's important to not finish the fish completely, and to have leftovers. The saying goes in Cantonese, "leen leen yow yu," which means "let every year be plentiful." The last character of the phrase for "plentiful" sounds very similar to the character for fish.
Out of all the dishes at a Reunion dinner, the fish is usually one of the simplest to prepare. My parents would always steam it, then top it with julienned scallions and ginger, along with chopped cilantro. Then they'd ladle hot sizzling oil on top with a few splashes of soy sauce. For this recipe, I wanted to keep it simple too, but added a few touches of my own. I worked in some fermented black beans and garlic for a more bold flavor, and a few sprinkles of chili flakes for heat.
I stuff a whole white-fleshed fish, like branzino (though many others will work too), with ginger slices, which help counter any fishy flavors.
Then I set it on a heatproof plate on top of scallions, to keep the fish lifted from the plate.
I steam the fish until it's just cooked through, then let it rest. I know a lot of people like their food to always be piping hot, but I find that a whole fish like this tastes best after it's been allowed to cool for a few minutes.
While it's resting, I quickly whip up the topping, cooking the garlic and fermented black beans, then tossing in thinly sliced scallions, ginger, cilantro, and chili flakes.
One last tip: When shopping for the fish, make sure to tell your fishmonger to keep the head and tail intact. If for some reason they ask why, let them know that you want the new year to be a plentiful one.
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