Chinese New Year Foods
Dishes to Bring Good Fortune to Your Home & Family
"Chi fan le mei you?" "Have you eaten yet?" Is a common greeting to guests as they enter your home to celebrate the Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year throughout the west. Many of the traditions of Chinese New Year center around food either being cooked or eaten.
To all people who trace their roots back to China, the most important date in the Lunar calendar is Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival, a traditional time for feasting with family and friends that dates back thousands of years.
As at all traditional Chinese gatherings, food plays an important role in the Chinese New Year Festival. Dinners tend to be very elaborate involving tables laden with auspicious foods.
On New Year's Eve, families have a reunion feast which includes nian gao, a sticky rice pudding cake which is said to make people "advance toward higher positions and prosperity step by step." A New Year's Eve tradition from Northern China, dumplings (jiao zi), look like the golden ingots yuan bao used during the Ming Dynasty for money and the name sound like the word for the earliest paper money, so serving them brings the promise of wealth and prosperity!
Many families eat these at midnight so they have money at the changing of the years. Some cooks will hide a clean coin in one for the most lucky to find. Long noodles are used to guarantee that all at the table will have a long life.
Whether fish or fowl, dishes are prepared whole. The use of knives or cleavers
are considered unlucky as this could sever the entire family's good fortune.
Almost every dish has a symbolic meaning or name that sounds like a Chinese characters for fortune, happiness, longevity and prosperity. Hoe see fat choy, hair seaweed (fat choy) with dried oysters (ho see) sounds like "wealth and good business," lotus roots (lin ngau) mean abundance year after year, while lettuce translates into "growing wealth" and pig's tongue forecasts "profit." When Cantonese families visit each other to exchange New Year greetings it is customary to take gifts such as tangerines and oranges, as their Chinese names sound like "gold" and "wealth". In many homes, a platter with either five meat or five vegetable dishes might be served. Whether meat or vegetable dishes are included, this dish is called "the five blessings of the new year," referring to longevity, riches, peace, wisdom and virtue.
On New Year's Eve, when everyone gathers around the table for the "Family Reunion Dinner" carp is a typical main course, because it symbolises a profitable year ahead. The fish is never
fully eaten to ensure that the family will have an excess of good fortune through the year. Vegetables embody the freshness of "evergreen" and store good fortune in their roots. Fish balls (yu-wan)
and meat balls (jou-wan) are symbolic of "reunion." The round shape of the meat and fish balls portrays "togetherness." Great care is taken to serve an even number of dishes to bestow "double happiness" on the family.
To ensure completeness and to avoid misfortune, most New Year dishes are
prepared with uncut or whole ingredients. You are probably familiar with a duck or chicken being served with the head and feet. When
cooking, people generally avoid chopping up fish, leafy greens and other items such as noodles. In fact, using knives, cleavers
or sharp objects during the holiday season is considered unlucky as this could sever the entire family's good fortune. If chopped ingredients are used for the recipes, they are prepared before the Spring Festival to avoid the possibility of bad omens. This
also makes the work of preparing the feasts a bit easier during the festival!
Tangerines and oranges
are given as gifts, as their
Chinese names sound
like "gold" and "wealth".
During the weeklong New Year celebrations, every household keeps their tables topped up with sweet and savoury specialties so they can welcome family and friends with a choice of festive treats. Another prerequisite of Lunar New Year is the "tray of togetherness", a tray or special box filled with an assortment of auspicious treats. Among the more popular treats are sweetened lotus roots (symbolising abundance), sweetened lotus seeds (suggesting fertility), dried melon seeds (symbolising profuse earnings), and all kinds of candies, which are a source of long-term sweetness.
Customs dictates that most families begin the first day of Chinese New Year with a vegetarian meal to counteract the effects of the excessive feasting on New Year's Eve. The choice of vegetables may include exotic types of mushrooms, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. The meat-free meal is also considered fortuitous for garnering good karma by refraining from eating anything that has been killed.
The second day of the New Year is the important "Day of Commencement" when businesses and household begin a new year of work with a commencement lunch. Cooks prepare a lavish line-up of dishes comprising chicken, shrimp, oysters and abalone. For enterprises such as retail shops these popular New Year mainstays are turned into hearty fares that include chicken, preserved duck, braised seaweed with dried oysters, and carp. The lavish meal inspires good team spirit and raises hope for a profitable year.
The third day of New Year is a day to avoid social interaction, since it's known as the "Day of Squabbles". Staying home is considered the wise thing to do, and what better to spend the day than a continuing to indulge in eating mouth-watering New Year treats? Again, auspicious-sounding ingredients such as lettuce and seaweed top the list of ingredients used in preparing sumptuous meals for all the family. The dawn of the fourth day marks the return of the Kitchen God after a brief trip back to Heaven where it had delivered an account of the families' behaviour over the previous 12 months.
The seventh day of the New Year is known as "Everybody's Birthday"
a day for all to celebrate new birth with yet another round of delightful feasts. Many years ago those who aspired to receive
specific blessings such as scoring the highest marks in an Imperial Exam would dine on symbolic dishes that would
include the "Scholar's Congee" (a dish made from boiled rice, pork and a pig's internal organs).
The 15th day of the New Year marks China's very own Valentine's Day, which is also known as the Chinese Lantern Festival. Decorative lanterns are hung both indoors and outdoors and lantern parties become the
major attraction for everyone to enjoy. A typical Lantern Festival treat called "Yuan Siu" round glutinous rice
balls stuffed with sweet fillings are eaten to symbolise togetherness and completeness.
A family activity during the festive spring season might include visiting walled villages to sample their fire pot "big bowl feast" ("Poon Tsoi" in Cantonese), which is regarded as a hearty treat when the weather is chilly. A traditional fire pot is a fondue style meal served in a wooden dish filled with layers of vegetables, meat and seafood. The base is usual lined with Chinese lettuce, sang choi, which sounds very much like the word meaning "to bring about wealth and riches." Cooked turnip, which has been chopped and cooked with stir-fried pork skin, strips of bean curd, bean curd balls or fish balls make the next layer. On top comes a layer of dried squid, roast pork, dried oysters, braised lotus roots and chicken. The tastes and flavours of this mouth-watering dish are enough to whet the appetite of the fussiest eater.
During the New Year month, auspicious ingredients such as oysters, seaweed, abalone, and sea cucumber are added to the feast as symbols of good fortune. Fish (yu) represent "having enough to spare," while the word for garlic chives sounds like chiu-tsai and has the meaning of "everlasting," wishing your family and guest a long life. Turnips (tsai tou) mean "good omens." Hao, oysters, sounds like the word for "an auspicious occasion or event."
The Hong Kong Tourist Board was the primary source for this information, although this was supplemented by many other friends and resources.