Chinese New Year is fast approaching on the 16th of February so make sure you don`t miss out on the opportunity to eat and try out many fantastic foods! Many of them have symbolic meaning so “Lucky food” is quite common during this holiday. It is served during the 16-day festival season, especially New Year’s Eve, which is believed to bring good luck for the coming year. The auspicious symbolism of these foods is based on their pronunciations or appearance so not only do the dishes themselves matter, but also the preparation, and ways of serving and eating mean a lot.
The New Year’s Eve dinner (年夜饭- Nián yèfàn) or Reunion dinner (团年饭 – tuán niánfàn) is extremely important event when all family members come together, if they truly can’t make it, the rest of the family will leave their spot empty and place a spare set of utensils for them. In the legend of the Spring Festival’s origin, the monster Nian would come and terrorize the villages. The people would hide in their homes, prepare a feast with offerings to the ancestors and gods, and hope for the best. Though every region has their variations, here are some common dishes seen on every table:
- Spring rolls 春卷 (chūn juǎn)
They are eaten during the Spring Festival in Southern China to celebrate the coming of spring. More specifically, they are eaten on the first day of spring (立春—lì chūn) appearing on the table as a dinner dish, appetizer or snack. During the Jin Dynasty (circa 265-420), people would arrange spring rolls and vegetables together on a plate. This was known as the Spring Platter (春盘—chūn pán). During the Spring Festival, emperors would award officials with Spring Platters, it is said that each platter have been worth thousands.
- Dumplings 饺子 (jiǎo zi)
Another well-known dish, dumplings are the northern equivalent of spring rolls. They are eaten during every special occasion, but are the most significant during Chinese New Year.In Chinese, dumplings (饺子—jiǎo zi) sounds like 交子(jiāo zi). 交 (Jiāo) means “exchange” and 子(zi) is the midnight hours so jiāo zi is the exchange between the old and new year. All dumplings should be wrapped at this time. By eating dumplings, you are sending away the old and welcoming the new. Some people even put a coin in a random dumpling. Whoever eats it will have great luck that year.
- Good Fortune Fruit
Certain fruits are eaten during the Chinese New Year period, such as tangerines and oranges. They are selected as they are particularly round and “golden” in color, symbolizing fullness and wealth, but more obviously for the lucky sound they bring when spoken. Eating and displaying tangerines and oranges is believed to bring good luck and fortune due to their pronunciation, and even writing. The Chinese for orange (and tangerine) is 橙 (chéng /chnng/), which sounds the same as the Chinese for ‘success’ (成). One of the ways of writing tangerine (桔 jú /jyoo/) contains the Chinese character for luck (吉 jí /jee/).
- Noodles 长面 (cháng miàn)
In some places, it’s custom to cook dumplings and noodles together. This is called gold silk and gold ingots. In the beginning, they were called “soup pancakes” (汤饼—tang miàn) and people would tear the dough into little pieces and throw them into the pot, it wasn’t until Tang Dynasty when people began rolling them into the noodle shape we know today. People also like to eat long noodles also called 长寿面 (cháng shòu miàn), which means “longevity noodles.” You aren’t allowed to cut them and should try not to chew either and it has been said the longer the noodle, the longer your life will be. Come by and choose any dish of your choice! Learn more…
Many vegetables and meats have symbolic meanings as well. For example:
Eggs: big and healthy family
Lobster: endless money rolling in
Shrimp: fortune and wealth etc.
- Steamed Fish 蒸鱼 (zhēng yú)
Fish is a must for the Chinese New Year. In Chinese, fish (鱼—yú) has the same pronunciation as 余, which means “surplus” or “extra.” The typical blessing is 年年有余 (Nián nián yǒuyú), wishing you to have a surplus (or fish) of food and money every year. Half of the fish is eaten for dinner, and the second half the next day to prolong the surplus and make the future prosperous as well. A whole fish also represents a harmonious and whole family. Some would cook a bigheaded carp but only the middle would be eaten, while the head and tail are left intact. The Chinese phrase is 有头有尾 (yǒu tóu yǒu wěi)—to have both a head and tail is a reminder to finish everything you had started and wish for positive results. During dinner, the fish head should be placed facing the guests.
- Steamed Chicken 蒸鸡 (zhēng jī)
A whole chicken is another symbol of family. It represents reunion and rebirth. To express this auspicious meaning, people keep the head and claws. After cooking, people will first offer the chicken to the ancestors. Though only a superstition now, praying to the ancestors for blessings and protection is still a significant part of the Spring Festival and Chinese culture. The workers of the family should eat chicken feet, also called “phoenix claws” (凤爪—fèng zhuǎ), which is supposed to help them grasp onto wealth. Chicken wings help you fly higher, while the bones represent outstanding achievement.
- Nian gao 年糕 (nián gāo)
Nian gao, also known as “rice cake” or “New Year cake” in ancient times were used only as an offering to the ancestors and gods. Gradually, they became a traditional dish during the Spring Festival and now are available every day of the year. Nian gao also has the same pronunciation as 高 (gāo – tall/high). It’s a wish to be successful and “higher” each year. They are either made of sticky glutinous rice or yellow rice, giving nian gao two major colors and textures.
- Vegetable dishes
Spring is the season to plant new seeds. Traditionally, the Spring Festival is the best time to finish all the vegetables stored and preserved from the winter. This dish can be called 田园素小炒 (tián yuán sù xiǎo chǎo), or countryside vegetarian stir-fry. Mushrooms, jujube and Chinese cabbage are often included, in addition to your typical greens. Some symbolic vegetables to consider putting in your dish are:
Seaweed: symbolizing wealth and fortune
Lotus seeds: a blessing for children and a healthy family
Bamboo shoots: represent longevity
- Hot pot 火锅 (huǒ guō)
For many, hot pot is the centerpiece of Spring Festival dinners. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty was the most avid fan of this dish. Despite being loved by commoners and royalty alike, hot pots are actually quite basic. It’s simply a bubbling pot and plates of uncooked meat and vegetables. You can choose whatever you like to throw into the pot. Wait until it’s cooked, take it out and eat.