Given the importance of food in Chinese culture, it is not surprising that food plays a major role in Chinese New Year celebrations. "Lucky" foods are served through the two week Chinese New Year celebration, also called the Spring festival.
Symbolic Chinese Foods
What gives a certain food symbolic significance? Sometimes it is based on appearance. For example, serving a whole chicken during the Chinese New Year season symbolizes family togetherness.
Noodles represent a long life; an old superstition says that it's bad luck to cut them. Both clams and Spring Rolls symbolize wealth; clams because of their resemblance to bouillon, and Spring Rolls because their shape is similar to gold bars.
On the other hand, a food may have special significance during Chinese New Year because of the way the Chinese word for it sounds. For example, the Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like rising fortune, so it is very common to serve a lettuce wrap filled with other lucky food. Tangerines and oranges are passed out freely during Chinese New Year as the words for tangerine and orange sound like luck and wealth, respectively. And let's not forget pomelos. This large ancestor of the grapefruit signifies abundance, as the Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the word for "to have."
Fish also play a large role in festive celebrations. The word for fish, "Yu," sounds like the words both for wish and abundance.
As a result, on New Year's Eve it is customary to serve a fish at the end of the evening meal, symbolizing a wish for abundance in the coming year. For added symbolism, the fish is served whole, with head and tail attached, symbolizing a good beginning and ending for the coming year.
And what about the sweet, steamed cakes that are so popular during the Chinese New Year season?
Cakes such as Sticky Rice Cake have symbolic significance on many levels. Their sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life, while the layers symbolize rising abundance for the coming year. Finally, the round shape signifies family reunion.
So if you missed the fireworks and celebrations on New Year's Eve, don't worry - you'll have another chance to celebrate. Chinese New Year falls on January 31 in 2014. It is the Year of the Horse.
Next page > On to the Recipes! > Page 2
Learn more about Chinese cuisine by signing up for my free bi-weekly About Chinese Cuisine newsletter
From appetizers to dessert, these recipes all feature foods that are considered to be lucky in Chinese culture. They are especially popular during the Chinese New Year season, but you can enjoy them all year long!
Chinese New Year Recipes:Jiaozi
These round dumplings signify family reunion. In northern China families traditionally spend New Year's Eve together preparing the dumplings, which are eaten at midnight.
One lucky person may find a gold coin inside! Crescent-shaped Jiaozi are a symbol of wealth and prosperity because of their resemblance to ancient Chinese money (silver ingots).Spring Rolls, Egg Rolls and Clam Sycee
All of these appetizers resemble gold or silver bullion and symbolize wealth.Lettuce Wraps
The Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like rising fortune, so it is common to serve lettuce wraps filled with other lucky food. To turn this into an even more symbolic dish, substitute dried oysters for the chicken meat (dried oyster sounds like the word for "good").Lion's Head Meatballs
A visually appealing dish from Shanghai consisting of oversized meatballs with bok choy "manes." The lion represents power and strength in Chinese culture, while the oversized meatballs symbolize family reunion.Peking Duck
Duck symbolizes fidelity in Chinese culture.Sweet and Sour Pork
In "Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen," Grace Young notes that this dish is popular with families hoping for a lot of grandchildren, as the Cantonese word for "sour" sounds like the word for grandchild.Steamed Whole Fish
The word for fish, "Yu," sounds like the words both for wish and abundance, and serving a fish at the end of the meal symbolizes a wish for abundance in the coming yearLongevity Noodles
Be sure not to cut them!Jai - Buddhist New Year's Day Vegetarian Dish
Also known as Buddha's Delight, this popular New Year's day dish is loaded with symbolism.
It is a Buddhist tradition that no animal or fish should be killed on the first day of the lunar year. Vegetables are considered to be purifying, and many of the ingredients in this dish, from lily buds to fungus, have their own special significance. This article from the Honolulu Star Bulletin includes two restaurant versions of the dish.White Cut Chicken
Serving a whole chicken symbolizes wholeness and prosperity.Tea Eggs - eggs have a special symbolic significance in China, as they symbolize fertility. Flowering Chives Stir-fry Chinese garlic chives symbolize eternity. Eight Precious Pudding
Eight is a considered to be a lucky number because the Chinese word for eight sounds like "fortune."
Cakes have a special place in Chinese New Year celebrations.Their sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life, while the layers symbolize rising abundance for the coming year. Finally, the round shape signifies family reunion.Sticky Cake (Nian Gao)
According to custom, this steamed fruitcake is fed to the Chinese Kitchen God so that he will report favorably on a family's behavior when he returns to heaven before the start of the New Year.Baked Nian Gao
For those of you who are uncomfortable with steaming, in this recipe the cake is baked.
For extra help, here are photo instructions to make Baked Nian Gao.Turnip Cake
Another cake traditionally enjoyed during the New Year season.And a special dish for the seventh day of the Chinese New Year Season...
Chinese New Year Salad (Yu Sheng) - Also known as Lo Hei, this dish is traditionally served on the seventh day of Chinese New Year, which the Chinese celebrate as "everyone's birthday." The higher you toss the salad, the greater your luck and prosperity in the New Year!
*If you visit an Asian supermarket during the Chinese New Year season, don't be surprised to abundance of red and gold decorations. Gold is a symbol of power, while red symbolizes happiness.Note: In the recipes, TB = 1 tablespoon (or 15 ml for European readers) and tsp = 1 teaspoon
Gung Hay Fat Choy!
(Peace and Prosperity!)
Previous page > Chinese Food Symbolism > Page 1