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For Chinese, biggest meal of the year goes West

Photographer | Collection | Getty Images

On top of the symbolic rice cakes and traditional must-haves like steamed fish and chicken, Guangzhou resident Li Haining will also be savoring Norwegian salmon and Canadian shellfish when her family sits down for their annual reunion dinner on Wednesday.

The 29-year-old ordered the dishes online from Tmall, the country's largest business-to-consumer (B2C) retail platform and arm of New York-listed Chinese tech giant Alibaba.

Li is among a burgeoning group of young and internet-savvy consumers going online for ideas to spruce up their reunion dinner menus, lured by convenience and safety concerns over local ingredients.

The Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival in China, is the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar and the reunion dinner, held on New Year's Eve, is the occasion for family members to get together to usher in the new year.

In the mainland, a traditional reunion meal largely consists of "prosperous" food items like prawns, fish and chicken, but different regions within China may have their own representative specialty items, said Jin-bo Lu, assistant professor of China Studies at Zhejiang University. "In Northern China, dumplings, which look like golden ingots, are a necessity, while people in the South go for rice balls, or known as "tangyuan" in Chinese, as they symbolize reunion."

But the traditional dishes appear to be set for an overhaul, as the well-educated Chinese middle class with sophisticated palate is increasingly opting for Western fare during this festive period.

"People in Tianjin love seafood but lobsters don't come by often. So when I saw it online, I knew it would be the special dish to have for Chinese New Year," sales associate Ding Xianli, who lives in the Chinese Northern city of Tianjin, told CNBC. Ding recently purchased a Canadian lobster for 110 yuan (approximately $18) from Tmall.

Broadening culinary horizons

Not surprisingly, the top-selling imported fresh food items on the B2C platform this holiday season were Canadian lobster, Argentinean red shrimp, Chilean king crab and Australian steak.

Sales of these items jumped by as much as four times in the month leading up to Chinese New Year, compared with the four weeks before.

"Chinese people are now eager to try things they have never heard about – they feel it's fashionable and fits in with a modern lifestyle," Dong Shuai, director of Tmall's fresh food vertical said in an interview with CNBC.

Imported fresh fruits including Sunkist oranges and Washington apples are also hot sellers on the website. Fruit is commonly gifted when visiting friends and family during the holiday season as it healthy and easy to share.

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The majority of the shoppers on Tmall's fresh food vertical, which was launched at the end of 2013, are females, between 28 and 35 years old, living in Eastern China, according to the company.

"Most of them still prepare the food the traditional Chinese way as they have limited knowledge around how to cook the western way," Dong said.

Changing priorities

Increased demand for imported food is part of a larger trend among Chinese consumers who are more willing to pay more for experiences and less on material goods, said Shaun Rein, founder and managing director of the China Market Research Group.

"What's happening is Chinese are cutting back on purchases of luxury goods like handbags and spending more on premium imported foods. Gourmet food items like lobsters, prawn, foie gras, manuka honey, kiwis, nuts are all popular," he said.

"Part of it is they want to try new things, part of it is food safety," he added. Recent food safety scares have sapped confidence in locally produced items.

This shift in consumption patterns is posing a challenge for global food conglomerates with factories in China, said Rein.

"No one wants to buy a Nestle, or foreign brands made in China. They are too cheaply positioned that people don't trust the brand. They prefer to buy from specialty stores or e-commerce sites,"he added.