The ‘quiet luxury’ trend in Chinese dining: how showy ingredients like bird’s nest are out with young epicures, who eat without breaking the bank

The salad might seem like a random compilation of ingredients, but each component represents a desire for the year ahead. You see, the Chinese are obsessed with eating to manifest wealth just like the British drink for … well, just like the British drink, full stop.

Yusheng originated in Malaysia and Singapore, but has become popular in recent years thanks to social media. Photo: Getty Images

Our consumption habits have always skewed towards accumulation, and this shows up as much in our choice of material goods as it does on the plate – or off the plate, as it was in the case of the flying “gold” cracker.

If you ever forget what an ingredient represents, just blag it and say … prosperity? (When in doubt: it’s always wealth.)

Each component of yusheng represents a desire for the year ahead – mostly involving wealth. Photo: Jenny Lau
But attitudes to wealth are changing, or at least the optics of it. If I ask you to imagine the typical Chinese luxury consumer, perhaps you picture them accessorised with an oversized gem-set Rolex, or a personalised number plate, resplendent with a row of eights.
Yet, in 2023 “quiet luxury” was the breakaway trend. Some say the shift – also coined “stealth wealth” or “old money-core” – reflects a global zeitgeist that rejects ostentation for timeless and minimal craftsmanship.
Let’s be real: Shiv Roy’s wardrobe on HBO’s hit show Succession was a key influence. Chinese fashionistas also bought into the look, opting for a specific Western aristo-aesthetic that favours Loro Piana or Ralph Lauren over blown-up LV monograms.
Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in a still from HBO’s Succession. Photo: HBO

I’m heartened to see a maturing attitude to the more is more aesthetic, especially as the Chinese nouveau riche have a notorious reputation for crossing the line between classy and crass. I wonder whether this development will be reflected in Chinese eating habits at all?

Our food culture is also not without vulgarity. Edible luxuriousness has long been measured variously: by its content, its quality and its price tag. Sometimes certain ingredients seem to be deemed valuable by virtue of exclusivity or size.

Sure, we Chinese have been pursuing fine flavours for millennia, but it has always amused me that rare ingredients such as bird’s nest or sea cucumber are fairly tasteless. And just as with fashion labels, food brands carry culturally symbolic significance. Ferrero Rocher, anyone?

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Stare down a pimped up poon choi feast and you can’t help but calculate the cost of each bite. There’s fish maw, sea cucumber, abalone, dried scallops, goose web … If your pocket feels hot, that’s probably the burning sensation in your wallet.

Would it be unfair to suggest that some people get a thrill out of the performative spending as much as the food itself?

Poon choi has humble origins in Hong Kong’s rural walled villages. Photo: Jenny Lau
Might we see a move away from loud luxury among Chinese epicures? Demand for shark fin soup has been declining, and younger generations are increasingly interested in sustainable food systems and plant-based lifestyles.

There are also practical concerns about a black market of fake goods, such as the black moss so prized for its homonymous expression of a wish to get wealthy.

While fake Rolexes reportedly make up half of the replica luxury watch market, getting caught wearing a counterfeit can only dent your reputation. Eating fake moss has more damaging consequences.

Demon Chef’s farm-to-table Cafe Bau and the Hong Kong farmers supplying it

It’s worth noting that the quiet luxury fashion look is not one that is trending among the rich. They are, after all, already quietly wealthy. The aesthetic is mere cosplay for average Joes and Josephines, easily imitable with a Shein overcoat and Uniqlo’s affordable cashmere. By next season, it will be time for a costume change.

But when you look at our relationship with luxurious foods, loud luxury relates more to maintaining social relationships: whether entertaining clients or friends, offering luxury on a plate is intrinsically linked to the Chinese concept of saving face.

Come to think of it, eating wealth is not the same as eating for wealth. This is a colourful nuance I love about Chinese food culture. Luxury need not be literally ingested, if it can also be simulated through symbolism.

Yusheng is about eating for wealth, not eating wealth; there’s a difference. Photo: Jenny Lau

As a plant-based cook myself, I have in my pantry an arsenal of “poor man’s x”: vegan substitute ingredients, all of which offer value for money and just as much nutritional goodness.

You can swap bird’s nest for snow fungus, abalone for king oyster mushrooms, Cordyceps sinensis for Cordyceps militaris, shark fin for shark fin melon, and so on.

On reflection, perhaps I was hasty to laugh at the overt theatricality of yusheng. Sure, it is loud – literally, in volume – but ostentatious it is not. The salad’s ingredients are affordable, accessible and easy to prepare.

Long may we eat in affectation of luxury and in pursuit of good fortune – without breaking the bank.

Jenny Lau is a London-based writer and the creator of Celestial Peach, a platform for stories about food in the Chinese diaspora and the people and cultures behind it.

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