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December 19, 2010

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Looking for a bite of Christmas cheer

CHINESE are accustomed to warm holiday gatherings when the whole family gets together and shares best wishes and wonderful food, notably for the Chinese Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Though hardly any Chinese celebrate Christmas, except in a commercial way, I do know what it's like to be alone on a holiday when it's so important for foreigners to get together.

I remember last Christmas Eve when I was a student in Norwich, England. School was out for winter holiday and I had no family to visit. It was a cold and snowy night. Buses were canceled, restaurants were closed.

I walked alone on the streets, seeing houses with warm lights inside. Sometimes I could faintly hear merrymakers clinking glasses. I decided the best thing for me to do was walk to the candle-lit cathedral and listen to beautiful Christmas carols.

There are probably foreigners in Shanghai today who cannot go back home for family Christmas. I know how lonely it can be.

This week, in addition to discussing common Western Christmas food traditions, we scout delicious and welcoming Christmas Eve and Christmas treats to warm the tummy and the heart.

Roast turkey is famous in America and it can have a variety of interesting stuffings that may include herb bread, rice, apples, onions, celery, chestnuts, turkey liver and gizzard, sausage and many other ingredients. The skin is glazed and basted with all kinds of things, like honey, maple sugar, brown sugar, butter, mustard, apple cider - it makes one hungry just thinking about it.

After the turkey emerges from the oven and is carved, some people enjoy the tradition of breaking the wishbone - one person takes each end, both make a wish and pull. The one who pulls away the larger part gets his or her wish.

There's mulled wine, apple cider and eggnog, a concoction of milk, eggs, cream, sugar, and ground nutmet or cinnamon - and maybe a dash of rum, brandy or whisky.

In England and Ireland, it's a tradition for the whole family to come together to make Christmas pudding - this is best done a couple of months in advance. Then the steamed moist bread heavy with fruits and nuts is (sometimes) saturated from time to time with brandy. While making it in the kitchen, everyone including children takes turns stirring the pudding and making a wish. Sometimes mom places a coin or two in the pudding and whoever bites the coins when it's served, gets a wish.

In France, the most famous Christmas food is buche de noel (yule log cake), a sponge cake shaped like a firelog and decorated with chocolate buttercream and powdered sugar. Legend has it that once a poor man could not afford a gift for the young woman he loved, so instead he gave her a small log for her fireplace, symbolizing his love. She was touched and they courted. Hence, the log shape is said to signify luck and love.

In China in the 1930s, there were many Christian schools so the celebration of Christmas became popular, especially in Shanghai and Nanjing. According to my grandmother, the headmistress would ask the staff to prepare turkey, puddings and some Shanghainese dishes. Nuns played the piano and everyone sang Christmas carols.

Christmas customs were weakened, however, as China emphasized Chinese traditions and holidays, instead of Western ones. Religious traditions were taboo during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Today the Christmas spirit has revived, but it's overwhelmingly commercial, a time of very secular shopping and parties.

Ye Shanghai

This is a distinctively Shanghai-style Christmas Eve dinner and instead of turkey there's drunken chicken - and live Shanghai jazz.

Hua Diao (high-grade Shaoxing wine) wine-marinated drunken chicken is one of the starters. The chicken is fully immersed in the yellow wine made of glutinous rice and wheat, so that the meat is moist and the flavor is rich.

The main courses include full-bodied braised tiger prawns in the shell with sweet chili sauce, stir-fried crab meat with egg whites served in sesame pockets, smoked egg with caviar and baked silver cod.

The xiaolongbao dumplings are famous.

On Christmas Eve the atmosphere will be warm, romantic and casual, a perfect spot to enjoy Shanghainese cuisine.

Price: 588 yuan/person

Address: 388 Huangpi Rd S.

Tel: 6311-2323

Jade Mansion

Pastry chef Lily Jiang has created a 15cm x 15cm, 400 gram chocolate house. There's a green Christmas tree, a white snow man, a black wooden house with snow on the eaves in this scene. Chef Lily says she ground fresh cocoa beans and then added sugar. Only in this way, she says, can the perfect balance of sweet and bitter be achieved and the chocolate fragrance be appreciated.

Price: 400g/ 128 yuan

Address: 4/F, 8 Century Ave

Tel: 5012-7728


Premium Wagyu Beef - all you can eat. That's on the Christmas set menu in this Korean restaurant. The plate features Karubi sliced marinated beef, roast sliced sirloin and prime skirt steak. Kimchi and other Korean dishes are on offer, including dolsot bibimbap, a bowl of steamed rice served with seasonal vegetables, beef and a raw egg. Korean seafood and noodles are available.

Price: 288 yuan/person

Address: B2, World Financial Center, 100 Century Ave

Tel: 6877-6865

The House of Roosevelt

American, Japanese and Italian fare are on offer in a delectable but also healthy menu. There's Toro sashimi with seaweed salad, ginger custard with beluga caviar, Kumamoto oysters with lemon and grilled Boston lobster with Kari goose sauce.

Vegetarian options are available if ordered in advance. A glass of Champagne and a plate of New Year's dessert are part of the set menu.

Price: 888 yuan/person

Address: 27 Zhongshan Rd E1

Tel: 6433-8240


A traditional Western-style Christmas Eve dinner is on offer. There's roast turkey breast with chestnut filling and braised veal cheeks with mashed potato. Vegetarians can enjoy morel ragout and braised zucchini. For sweet tooth, abundant of desserts are on the menu, including famous Christmas pudding and polenta and Scottish honey.

The set menu includes one glass of Perrier Jouet champagne and free flow of wine.

For those who want to send sweet presents to their friends, waiters provide order forms for all manner of cookers, gingerbreads, chocolates and pastries made by pastry chefs.

Their gingerbread house and chocolate log are notable.

Price: 1,088/person

Address: 30/F, Hyatt on the Bund, 199 Huangpu Rd

Tel: 6393-1234, ext 6328


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