Are Singaporeans paying too much money for these traditional Reunion Dinner dishes?
Reunion dinners are meant to be lavish affairs, but there’s always a restaurant or two looking to take advantage. From inventing entire myths (Yu Sheng is unheard of in many parts of China), to over-fancifying simple foods, there are any number of ways you’ll be overcharged. Here are few things to watch for:
1. Yu Sheng Shenanigans
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way – Yu Sheng (or Yusang) as we know it doesn’t really exist in China. There is a tradition of eating fish in China for good luck on the new year (see below), but Yu Sheng as we know it is a local creation.
(It was probably invented by a Singaporean restaurant called Loong Yik Kee, which operated in the 1930’s).
Still, tossing Yu Sheng is a fun practice. And you can get many quality, affordable versions today for well under S$50. What you want to avoid are the fancied-up versions, which reach absurd prices. For example, in 2013, the Hilton Fortune Treasure Yu Sheng went for the price of S$688. This was due to ingredients like abalone, fresh lobster, gold leaves (which are tasteless), and many other excessive additions.
That won’t be the first, nor the last, form of ridiculous Yu Sheng. Every new year, there will always be a contest among restaurants to do something more over-the-top and pricey with this dish.
The problem is, Yu Sheng is heavy on sauce (especially plum sauce). It’s also heavy on strong flavoured vegetables, and by tradition has to be sweet. That means all those delicate and expensive ingredients – like sashimi grade fish or lobster – gets smothered. As good as they are, you won’t taste them.
So before forking out a 3-digit sum, just remember: if you couldn’t see that price tag, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
2. Overpriced Fish
Eating fish is a must on Chinese New Year, for symbolic reasons. Yu (fish) means abundance. Yu Sheng dishes draw from this ancient Chinese belief.
But if you want to be traditional, you may be interested to know that the traditional type of fish used are the Chinese mud carp, or the common catfish. Neither of these delicious, traditional options are expensive; and they’ll often feed 4 or 5 people for under S$50.
However, there are now restaurants that will “up” the lavishness, by using more expensive fish. The penultimate fish is supposed to be the Malayan Mahseer, which can cost between S$180 to S$780 per kilo.
We suppose everyone needs their own way to feel special, and for some spending one month of the mortgage on dinner is how it’s done. But before you decide to do it, remember two things:
The first is that, unless you’re a connoisseur, it probably won’t taste several hundred dollars better – especially not under ingredients like soy sauce. The second is that you’re actually paying to break with Chinese New Year traditions; the reason the Chinese picked the catfish and the mud carp are symbolic. These were fish that exemplified resilience and abundance, even in rough conditions.
3. Overpriced Dumplings
Another favourite target for over-the-top pricing, dumplings are easy to overdo. These are a traditional Chinese New Year food, symbolising prosperity – but your wallet will be in the exact opposite state of that, if you fall for gimmick dumplings.
Because you can stuff anything inside these, restaurants like to throw in ingredients like truffle, high grade alcohol, or even fine cheeses. We don’t want to point fingers, but at least one local restaurant has hit a price of S$88 for eight dumplings. Small dumplings, we might add.
If you want real quality dumplings, it doesn’t come from cramming expensive stuff in it – quality dumplings are based on the number of “folds” near the top of the dough skin (38 folds is considered good), and a “balanced”, delicate mix of flavours.
On New Year’s Eve, the tradition is to eat a dumpling with cabbage and radish. Not fancy truffle, not high grade whisky, or any expensive innovation. Also, tradition holds that the more dumplings you can eat, the more money you’ll make in the coming year. Well you’d better hope you make a lot, if those dumplings are S$11 a pop.
If you stay traditional, S$50 will stuff you so full of dumplings you won’t want to eat them again till next year. Save the money for the ang paos you’ll be giving out.
4. Anything Cooked in Exotic Alcohol
Chinese New Year seems to bring out all the “cooked in rare whisky/wine” type dishes. The most common targets for these are drunken prawns, or chicken. Because of the premium alcohol used, prices are often raised by as much as 150%. And of course, the results are quite overrated.
There’s a reason chefs distinguish between alcohol for cooking, and alcohol for drinking. Alcohol does indeed flavour food, but a lot of it evaporates in the cooking process – and it’s almost impossible to tell whether the chef used a S$200 bottle of wine, or a S$15 bottle from the discount section.
On top of that, there are cooking wines (or related forms of alcohol for cooking) because the sort you drink may well taste terrible in food. A sauvignon blanc may do nothing for a chicken dish, except to raise the price and make it extremely bitter; more so in contact with ingredients like ginseng.
And while we don’t want to cast aspersions on any particular restaurant, we do need to point out a problem: you would have no clue if the restaurant used the alcohol they claimed.
If you want an alcohol kick in the food, then go for it – but remember that paying for premium alcohol in food is just wasting money. Regular old alcohol of any sort will do the job.
5. Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, If It’s Above the S$88 Mark
Buddha Jumps Over the Wall is not going to be cheapest dish, if cooked in the traditional style – we’d be the first to acknowledge that. But some restaurants have decided to take something already expensive, and make it even more costly. The underlying philosophy seems to be: since you’re already spending so much, what’s another S$100?
Traditional Buddha Jumps Over the Wall is expensive due to the abalone and shark’s fin (assuming you have no ethical considerations about that). But during the New Year period, expect versions with gold flakes sprinkled in it, high grade mushrooms (mushrooms mostly taste the same), 88 year old ginseng, and yes, the inevitable truffles.
Take our word for it: beyond the S$88 mark – an admittedly fair price for this luxury dish – you’re just paying to be decadent. You’re better off spending an extra S$100 on a second serving, than on a hyped-up version.
Save Money with a Dining Credit Card
If you insist on overpaying for any of these reunion dinner dishes, use the right credit card to earn cash rebates on your meal. We suggest the Citi Cash Back Card, which gives 8% cashback on dining up to S$25 a month. Or you can use SingSaver.com.sg to compare dining credit cards in Singapore.
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By Ryan Ong
Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.