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    Do Ready-Made Meals Belong at China’s New Year’s Table?

    The rise of precooked versions of popular New Year’s dishes has traditionalists spitting mad, but they’re more than just lazy substitutes.

    If you ask Chinese people what the most important meal of the year is, most will say nianye fan, or the Lunar New Year’s Eve dinner. Every year, hundreds of millions of Chinese return home for New Year’s; for many, it’s the one time of year they see their families. And nothing encapsulates the spirit of the season like the multi-course, whole-family affair that is nianye fan.

    The dinner is not simply a meal. For many Chinese families, it’s a symbol of reunion, a ritual that binds members together. It’s common to serve more than a dozen dishes, all of them prepared together, typically under the direction of the family’s elders. The process is a rare chance for special, family-specific traditions to be passed down from generation to generation.

    Yet there are signs that nianye fan — or at least the preparation process — is under threat. Young Chinese, who grew up with the fruits of industrialized food processing, are increasingly introducing ready-made meals to their New Year’s dinner tables. According to market research firm iiMedia, sales of prepared dishes reached 130.7 billion yuan over last year’s New Year’s holiday, an increase of 43.6% year over year. A recent survey found that over 50% of consumers plan to use at least some pre-made dishes in their New Year’s Eve meal this year.

    This may not seem like a big deal, but for some Chinese, there’s something almost sacrilegious about using pre-cooked dishes for the most important holiday on the traditional Chinese calendar.

    It’s not just about fears that pre-cooked meals will break the inter-generational transmission of cooking knowledge. For older Chinese, taking charge of the kitchen ahead of the New Year is their chance to express care for their children and loved ones. Others point out that pre-prepared dishes also run counter to another nianye fan tradition: the offering of portions to a family’s ancestors. Historically, these offerings consisted of the best — and freshest — foods on the table, as well as homemade liquor. Not using fresh, high-quality ingredients could be interpreted as an act of impiety.

    But such arguments rarely take into account the voices and perspectives of young Chinese. Are our New Year’s feasts really being ruined by uninterested young people too lazy to cook?

    Previous studies have found that members of China’s “post-’00s” generation — a group roughly equivalent to “Generation Z” — are embracing the convenience of ready-made meals as an alternative to the time-consuming process of buying, preparing, and cooking their own food. While it’s not surprising that they might want to incorporate these preferences into their New Year’s Eve plans, their reasons for doing so may be.

    In interviews, my research team consistently found that post-’00s Chinese still ascribe great importance to nianye fan; they simply view pre-made dishes as a way to enhance that experience and free up more time to spend with their families, rather than as a replacement for home cooking.

    Indeed, one of the most common explanations given in our interviews was the desire to reduce the burdens placed on elderly family members, who are traditionally expected to take the lead in dinner preparations. This is especially true of complex, rarely eaten dishes like fotiaoqiang soup, a traditional Fujian delicacy, or poon choi, a Cantonese dish involving a long list of ingredients including chicken and seafood.

    Rather than see pre-packaged versions of these dishes as a violation of the spirit of nianye fan, many of our research participants argued that buying them ahead of time is their way of showing traditional moral values like filial piety; they perceived it as a form of care for their elderly relatives.

    If the rise of ready-made dishes in nianye fan points to anything, it’s a growing awareness of the labor that goes into our most important traditions. Although young Chinese still cherish the chance to gather together as a family, they no longer romanticize nianye fan as something conjured out of thin air by their elders — most of them women. Instead, they recognize the hidden work embedded in the meal, and they want to help.

    Their approach might not always mesh with how older Chinese see things, but the underlying beliefs of the two groups are similar: As all of our research participants noted, the significance of nianye fan lies in the honoring of culinary tradition, spending time with their families, and expressing mutual care. Traditions are never static, but New Year’s Eve dinner isn’t going anywhere.

    Yang Xuannan contributed to this article.

    Editor: Cai Yiwen.

    (Header image: A New Year’s Eve table in Beijing, 2018. VCG)