With the Chinese New Year fast approaching, many Chinese families are preparing for the celebrations. One of the most important preparations is food, as certain foods are eaten over the Lunar Year celebrations due to their symbolic meaning and the provision of good luck.
These meanings are derived from the pronunciation or appearance of the foods, with importance given to both how they are eaten and how they are prepared and served.
Dumplings are common for almost all Chinese celebrations, signifying wealth if they have the correct fillings. Dumplings are shaped like Chinese silver ingots and the tradition goes that the more dumplings you eat during New Year celebrations, the more money you can make during the New Year. Before eating the dumplings “Zhāo cái jìn bǎo”(招财进宝) is said, meaning “Bringing in wealth and treasure”.
However, it is key to avoid Chinese sauerkraut dumplings on New Year as they signify poorness and a difficult future. Instead, opt for cabbage and radish as a symbol of prosperity both for the body and the mind. Dumplings should also never be placed in a circle arrangement as then life will only go in circles; dumplings should be served in lines to show that life is continuing and progressing onwards.
Spring rolls, most popular in East China, also signify wealth and their name comes from the fact that they are traditionally eaten during the Spring festival (New Year). Spring rolls are often filled with vegetables, meat or something sweet and then fried to give them their golden colour, which is crucial to make them appear similar to gold bars. When eaten, the phrase “Huángjīn wàn liǎng” (黄金万两) is expressed, meaning ”a ton of gold” as a wish for prosperity in the New Year.
Nian gao is a glutinous rice cake that is considered to bring a lucky life. Nian gao is made from sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts, dates and lotus leaves.
The Chinese for glutinous rice cake, “Nián nián gāo” (年年高), sounds like “getting higher year-after-year by year”. This means that you will have a general improvement in life, including children growing well, business success, promotions, or better grades in school.
Fish is essential to a good Chinese New Year celebration. Fish should be the last dish left on the table with some leftover; the surplus is auspicious of having surplus food and money throughout the upcoming year. In some areas, it is traditional to leave the head and tail of the fish to eat at the beginning of the year, which represents starting and finishing the year with a surplus. The saying for eating fish is “Niánnián yǒu yú” (年年有余) which means “May you always have more than you need”.
Different types of fish have different meanings, with crucian carp bringing good luck for the next year, Chinese mud carp bringing good fortune, and eating catfish as a wish for surplus in the year.
Similarly to dumplings, there are rules relating to the positioning of the fish. The head should be placed toward distinguished guests or elders, representing respect. Diners can enjoy the fish only after the one who faces the fish head eats first and the fish shouldn’t be moved.
Tangyuan are sweet rice balls and are one of the main foods for the Lantern Festival. However, in South China they are commonly eaten throughout the Spring Festival and Lunar New Year. Tangyuan are made from rice flour and water, often served with sugar syrup. Tangyuan in their name and shape symbolise family unity and prosperity and are therefore favoured by some families during the Chinese New Year celebrations. Often “Tuántuán yuán yuán”(团团圆圆) is said, which has connotations of “Happy (family) reunion!”
The noodles eaten at Chinese New Year are slightly different to noodles that are used year-round in China. For the Lunar Year celebrations, longevity noodles are used; long and uncut, they symbolise longevity and therefore the longer the noodle the longer the longevity!
Certain fruits and vegetables are eaten during the Chinese New Year celebrations, symbolising key desires for the new year. Popular fruits are tangerines, oranges and pomelos. Their round and bright, golden colours symbolise well-rounded fullness and wealth. In addition, orange is pronounced and written as 橙 “chéng” which sounds the same as the Chinese for success (成 “chéng”). Pomelos are thought to bring continuous prosperity; the more you eat, the more wealth it will bring you.
Vegetables play an important role in the Chinese New Year meal. Popular vegetables include bamboo shoots (which represent longevity), poria mushrooms (symbolising blessings and fortune), muskmelon and grapefruit (representing family) and seaweed (which is associated with wealth and fortune).
With many delicious treats and deeply symbolic meanings, which lucky Chinese New Year foods would you like to try?