Food, drink and travel writer Qin Xie explains what the Chinese drink with the most important feast of the year and what goes down well in her own family.
Like Christmas, missing the familial gatherings during this fifteen-day festival is, in a word, unthinkable. That's why each year, millions of Chinese battle the impossible crowds to return for that reunion.
Typically, a feast on New Year's Eve is a table loaded with dishes and surrounded by multiple generations. It will start at lunch, which might be lighter, with a break for snacks, tea and games like mahjong or cards, before continuing onto dinner. Several members of the family will have invaded the kitchen at some point to lend a hand or to create their signature dishes.
The cold dishes will arrive first at each meal so people can start grazing but soon, a steady stream of hot plates will follow as the ingredients prepared over the course of the day is swiftly assembled into different flavours.
For libation, soft drinks are a staple – not only because they can be enjoyed by everyone but also because they can be drunk immediately unlike, for example, tea. That said, cold-brewed tea has been increasingly popular as a soft drink in China over the last few years.
The most popular choice of alcohol, especially inside restaurants, is beer. A well chilled larger, watery and low in alcohol, is probably one of the best antidotes to some of the more spicy dishes on the Chinese menu. Bottles of red wine, because red is auspicious and 'good for health', might also appear in some homes.
Of course, if the drinking gets serious, it's all about the baijiu – a distilled spirit that's knocking around the region of 50% ABV. As a shot, it packs a serious punch to the back of the throat before warming its way down to your stomach. Slowly sipped, however, fine wisps of the aroma gently floats off the top before the liquid cuts through your palate with surgical precision.
I'm not sure anyone likes it on their first attempt but it's tradition. And like a good single malt or a fine Cognac, you learn to love its nuances.
These aren't necessarily drinks intended to match a Chinese banquet. Indeed, finding the perfect match would be impossible given the number of different dishes on the table at any one time.
As someone who doesn't normally drink beer, I have to say that it works remarkably well in most cases – as long as it doesn't have so much character that it's competing with the food.
In terms of wine, a fruity Pinot Noir and a sweeter Riesling have both worked for me in the past. Basically, you want to steer away from tannin, which can end up tasting bitter – ironic given that a strong red wine is usually the vino of choice in China. Nutty amontillado and oloroso sherries, or even a sweeter cream sherry, also have a good affinity with most dishes.
Our family feast has always been a blend between Sichuan, where I was born, and northern Chinese, where my maternal grandparents were from. It's as diverse as they come.
This year, we had a few gluttonous moments over the space of a weekend so for drinks, it ended up being a mix of what we had to hand and what might theoretically work.
The main feast was a mix of about a dozen different fish, meat, seafood and vegetable dishes. With the meat split between pork and chicken, I decided to try a 2013 Bylines Riesling from Songlines Estate in Eden Valley, South Australia. The tropical notes made the match appreciable but the slight bitterness it left on the palate divided the table.
Crispy bites of pan-fried pork dumplings, laced with garlic chives and dipped into a soy and vinegar sauce with yet more garlic, called for something a bit more palate cleansing like green tea. I've just acquired a new collection of loose-leaf tea from Fujian, in south east China, and among them, the jasmine pearls have been my go-to choice for every-day brews. Light, fragrant and easy drinking, it doesn't fight with the garlic and is just as good on its own.
The most controversial match for the weekend was definitely the one for our Sichuan hotpot. Meat, seafood and vegetables are cooked in a spicy, pungent broth before being cooled, briefly, in a dip of sesame oil and raw garlic. You won't be kissing anyone after this but it's absolutely delicious and unpretentious.
With no beer to hand, I went with a gorgeous 2012 Suri Sandrinet Moscato d'Asti from Cerutti in Piedmont, Italy. Still fresh, light and bursting with peach and floral notes, the wine had the sweetness needed to cope with the spice. But unlike your average sweet wine, at just 5% ABV, it doesn't have the level of alcohol or the concentration to fight the strong flavours in the food. I doubt many Moscato d'Asti producers would be rushing to make that recommendation but it turned out to be the favourite of the weekend.
And in the end, for a celebration that's so rooted in tradition, it's okay to create some new ones too.
Qin Xie is a food, drink and travel writer. You can visit her website here.