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.
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 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.
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.
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.