By 5 p.m. New Year’s Eve, the dining room at Beijing House in Norwell will not be packed with people.
Instead, it will be wall-to-wall paper bags filled with those red and white takeout boxes.
The restaurant’s three phones will ring endlessly.
Workers will move nonstop to keep up with demand, turning out more than 500 orders as a line of hungry revelers snakes outside the front door.
“New Year’s Eve is like our Super Bowl,” said Ching Puskarich, who has owned and managed Beijing House for 26 years. “We use all the available space for the bags, even the buffet station. It’s busy. I have extra people to work, but we have a good system.”
That is a scene typical of many local restaurants as families and friends ring in the New Year with Chinese takeout – a tradition of unknown origin that has taken root on the South Shore.
“I worked in Virginia for a long time and it never happened like this,” Puskarich said. “It’s a really big New England thing.”
New Year’s Eve is the busiest night of the year for local Chinese restaurants. Tsang’s Village Café in Hanover had already taken orders as of Dec. 15. Some restaurants offer a limited menu of just large appetizers with no substitutions or combinations, and the wait can be two to three hours.
“It’s a crazy night,” said owner Wayne Tsang, and it’s been that way during the 15 years he’s been in business. Tsang’s is open from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and will go through about 400 pounds of fried rice over those 12 hours, he said.
“Call early,” Tsang said.
It’s all hands on deck leading up to New Year’s. Much of the week before is spent preparing for the big night – chopping vegetables, assembling hundreds of containers, filling small plastic condiment bowls with duck sauce and hot mustard.
Puskarich said she expects to send about 2,400 fortune cookies out the door.
“There are 300 in a box and we’ll go through at least seven or eight boxes,” she said.
Neath Pal, a chef and professor at Johnson & Wales University specializing in Asian cuisine, can’t pinpoint why the tradition formed in New England. But he said the food itself is culturally meaningful, and maybe Americans are adopting some of the philosophy.
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“Chinese food itself is all about celebration, a big celebration of family,” Pal said. “It’s about traditions. Chinese New Year isn’t until February, and that’s all about remembering ancestors and family. You wish everybody good health and wealth in the coming year.”
Tsang said he thinks the custom started because “years ago, everybody was closed. Chinese restaurants were the only ones open besides pizza shops. Now we are famous,” he said with a laugh.
Chinese food on New Year’s Eve is a family tradition
Randolph native Mark Ross, 50, said he cannot imagine celebrating New Year’s Eve without Chinese food.
“This has been around as long as I can remember,” Ross said. “Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, it’s just what you did, without fail.”
Ross recalls gatherings with family and friends to feast on Mongolian beef, spare ribs and pu pu platters. His parents would order from Cathay City, Ocean City or the “famous” Kona Gold.
“The lines would go outside of the building on the night of New Year’s Eve. There was no Grubhub or DoorDash. You had to go in person to pick it up, and sometimes the wait would be two hours,” Ross said.
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Twenty years ago, Ross moved to Las Vegas, where he continues this New Year’s Eve tradition.
“It is hard to find the things we like out here, so we have to resort to the mainstream: P.F. Chang’s. My parents, who are long since retired, live nearby. Tradition is, I order for New Year’s Eve, pick it up and bring it to their home. There is never even a question if we will be having Chinese food on New Year’s Eve,” Ross said.
Earlier this year, Ross started the New England Chinese Food Support Group, a Facebook page that celebrates local Chinese food. It has more than 1,400 members and growing.
Ross said he formed the page after “lamenting the unavailability” of New England-style Chinese American food, such as spare ribs and beef teriyaki.
“I suffer from pu pu platter deficiency syndrome and the struggle is real.”
‘Appetizers and beer’
Be it egg rolls, chicken wings, spare ribs, beef teriyaki or pork lo mein, Chinese food is versatile and crowd pleasing.
“Small appetizers are very appealing to a diverse crowd. It’s fun and easy,” Pal said. After the busy holiday season, “no one wants to cook another big meal. Order out and you can still continue the fun and festivities … and then have the leftovers the day after.”
Tsang agrees. “People want appetizers and beer,” he said.
Chinese food also pairs well with champagne, the world’s go-to celebratory beverage.
“The food has a lot of fat and the acidity and bubbles of the champagne balance well,” Pal said. “It’s palate cleansing.”
Puskarich, from Beijing House, said she plans to close up shop by 10 p.m. and ring in the new year at home. However, after a 12-hour workday, she won’t be sleeping late on Jan. 1.
“All those people who couldn’t get their orders in on New Year’s Eve come back New Year’s Day. It’s still busy,” she said.
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Reach Dana Barbuto at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: South Shore loves Chinese food on New year’s eve