The new lunar year is one of the most important events in Chinese culture. Various foods are eaten in a feast on the day ending the old year. It is all about good fortune, good health and a long life which is celebrated with the start of the new year through these symbolic and cultural dishes. The festival lasts 15 days and is also known as the Spring Festival. The last day is the Chap Goh Meh.
Chinese cuisine is tremendously diverse however the Chinese New Year is one time of year which unites all of the Han Chinese communities, not just in the country but all over the world. Celebrations will also be taking place in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia. At this time families come together as a tradition to gorge on a lavish feast. It is still preceded by ritual donations to gods and ancestors. Then at midnight, there is a storm of firecrackers to frighten off the spirits.
There are few rules for this “family reunion” (tuannian) meal. The one rule is: there must be extraordinary amounts of food, particularly fish, meat and poultry (dayu darou: “great fish and great meat”).
Fish, spring rolls, chicken and pork are all cuisine dishes for the start of the year. The luck is based as much on the pronunciation associated with food. It is what you would call a homonym. The food name sounds like another word with a different, auspicious meaning.
The other traditions apart from having a good feed is to give red packets which is a sign of good luck. Money is put in the envelopes for happiness. In China, the vivid red and gold packet is called yasui qian which means ‘suppressing ghosts’ money, or referred to as Lai See in Hong Kong. Sometimes there is a parade of a dragon through the streets and a great banging of mighty drums.
Fish is a must-have dish because the word for fish, “Yu,” sounds like the Chinese word for surplus or abundance. It’s possibly the most important dish of the festivities. It is a sure sign of good fortune, prosperity and abundance.
Most people will have fish for their reunion dinner. Politicians and important people are often invited to grace the main table to partake of a good luck toss. Normally, the family will serve fish with the head and tail intact. Some families will only eat the middle portion because the head and the tail must remain whole.
Traditionally, these two fish parts will be saved for the family – a symbolic gesture that the family is disciplined and will finish everything it starts. The other parts will be eaten the next day. For more luck, the fish should face guests or elders as a sign of respect. In Chinese restaurants, the server makes sure the fish head faces the head of the family.
The Raw Fish Salad (Yusheng or Lo Hei in Singapore)
This fish dish is known as the ‘Prosperity Toss’ and it all gets terribly messy. People stand around a table and use their chopsticks to toss the salad. It all gets out of hand and there is more food on the floor let alone the table or dish. The higher the toss, the more fortune you amass in the New Year. Tossing the food is very energetic, enthusiastic and in some quarters robust. I assume there is no fighting! In the tossing of the salad, you also say thinks like ‘Prosperity to all’, ‘May you have great health’, ‘Good Luck With The Grand National’ and so on.
The main ingredients are traditionally, pieces of fish such as salmon, strips of shredded vegetables including carrots for luck, green radish for longevity and so on. The sauce is different depending on where you live but is always plum sauce, sesame oil and water. It is topped with seeds and peanuts.
The idea of throwing the ingredients up and down is believed to come from Singapore and its ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ of the 60’s era.
Chicken has a homonym where it it is pronounced exactly like prosperity. Chinese eat chicken feet which is said to help you grasp wealth, the wings help you fly higher and bones represent achievement.
Dumplings (Jiaozi) – for Wealth and Prosperity
Dumplings are to China what chicken tikka masala is to Birmingham. The dumpling is what defined China in many ways although Northern Chinese really love this dish more than anything. There is an almost infinite variety to chose from. The different types apparently all mean something. In luck terms it means increased wealth. A number of them are shaped like ancient Chinese gold and silver ingots, hence symbolizing wealth and prosperity. These are commonly eaten on the evening of New Year but we know they are eaten throughout the festival.
Dumpling banquets are a critical aspect of the New Year festivities. They are filled with a variety of foods especially duck, pork and other meats.
There is a great dessert dumpling called Black Sesame Dumplings. These are an elegant sphere of dough filled with black bean paste and they have a nutty striking appearance. They are usually served in a light fruity tea broth.
Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake)
Nian Gao is a sticky rice cake that is popular during the New Year because its name is a homophone for “higher year” or “growing taller,” symbolizing the promise of a better year ahead. It is commonly made with Adzuki beans and you might find it called Red Bean Rice Cake.
Spring Rolls (Chun Juan)
Spring rolls (chun juan) are often enjoyed during Chinese New Year as they represent wealth and prosperity. The crispy exterior symbolizes the coming of spring.
Longevity Noodles (Changshou Mian)
Long noodles, often served uncut, symbolize longevity and are associated with the wish for a long and healthy life.
Just like longevity noodles, other noodle dishes are also popular during Chinese New Year, symbolizing a wish for a long and prosperous life.
Oranges and Tangerines
These fruits symbolize wealth and good luck. The words for orange and tangerine sound similar to the words for gold and luck, respectively.
These sweet rice dumplings are typically filled with sweet sesame paste, peanuts, or red bean paste. Tangyuan symbolize family reunion and are often eaten during the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Eight Treasures Rice (Ba Bao Fan)
This dish consists of sticky rice mixed with various sweet ingredients like red dates, dried fruits, and nuts. The number eight is considered lucky in Chinese culture.
Braised Pork Belly (Hong Shao Rou) – Represents wealth and prosperity.
Sweet and Sour Fish (Tang Cu Yu) – Symbolizes a balanced and harmonious life.
Peking Duck (Beijing Kao Ya) – A symbol of fidelity and happiness.
Buddha’s Delight (Luo Han Zhai) – A vegetarian dish symbolizing purification.
Braised Mushrooms and Vegetables (Hong Shao Zhen Sun) – Represents prosperity and growth.
Fried Rice (Chao Fan) – Symbolizes abundance and surplus.
Bamboo Shoots and Dried Fungus Stir-Fry (Sun Jie Xiang Gu Chao Zhu Sun)- Represents prosperity and unity.
Shrimp with Garlic Sauce (Suan Xiang Xia) – Symbolizes happiness and good fortune.
Scallion Pancakes (Cong You Bing) – Represents the hope for a prosperous year.
Red Bean Soup (Hong Dou Tang) – A sweet soup symbolizing good luck and happiness.
What else can we eat at Chinese New Year?
There is a square cake called Banh Chung. There is also a glutinous rice cake which refers to a better income or social and work position – a question of status being improved upon.
We should look out for spring rolls which also mean wealth. Noodles, especially longevity noodles symbolise happiness and longevity.
Various fruits represent fullness and wealth.