From longevity noodles to New Year rice cakes, these 8 foods help usher in good fortune to the home at the most important date on the Chinese calendar.
A pathway to prosperity
No self-respecting household at Chinese New Year is without most or all of these celebratory foods. While tasty of course, each one comes with its own ritualistic meanings and traditional symbolism. Let’s take a look at eight of the most traditional foods to celebrate Chinese New Year.
New Year Rice Cake (Nian Gao)
As with most Chinese dishes, the north and south have variations of the iconic nian gao, though it’s always a sticky-sweet cake prepared from glutinous rice. Whilst it can be eaten all year round, here’s what makes the cake special: ‘nian’ translates to ‘sticky’ but sounds just like ‘year’ when spoken and ‘gao’ means cake but sounds identical to ‘high’. Thus, the cake signifies a ‘higher year’ than the one previous. Genius!
Small fruit, nuts and confectionary snacks
Small foodstuffs like peanuts and melon seeds are abundant around Chinese New Year and represent blossom flowers falling on the ground. Beloved sweets like milky White Rabbit Creamy Candy are a favourite amongst younger celebrants too.
Uniting with family and loved ones is what underpins Chinese New Year so communal dining where everyone gets stuck in is the order of the day. There’s no such dish which does this better than a great cauldron of steaming hot pot, around which families can jostle for prime dipping position. A large simmering pot of tasty stew, hot pot’s main ingredients like seafood, pork or chicken are added raw and cooked round the table.
Much like nian gao, chicken is a homonym – in Chinese, ‘chicken’s’ pronunciation is the same as ‘prosperity’. As such chicken dishes are very popular and it’s served on New Year’s Eve dinner, one of the most important meals over the fortnight’s NY celebrations.
Part of the citrus family, the kumquat is a tiny, olive-shaped fruit resembling something like a micro-orange. Being smaller the flavour is super concentrated with a zingy sweet-yet-tart tang. Though not as much eaten at Chinese New Year as displayed in the home, families in China will always place a kumquat plant indoors. The fruit’s golden hue signifies the harvest while its round shape represents success.
Fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, boiled dumplings in soup: the dumpling opportunities are endless. Regardless of regions, all Chinese will eat dumplings at New Year. Their shape resembles ancient golden ingots, which signify wealth, and occasionally a family member may hide a coin inside.
What better food to symbolise a long and healthy life than, well, long and healthy noodles? Served much longer than usual and usually uncut, longevity noodles are typically made from wheat as they’re less breakage-prone, Served up in a soup or stir-fried with meat or vegetables and flavoured with sesame and ginger, they’re a delicious celebratory dish.
An indispensable guest at the Chinese New Year dinner table, fish is popular – like other dishes – because of its lucky homophonics. Fish’s homophonic ‘yu’ sounds like ‘surplus/abundance’ so it suggests that if there’s surplus food at the end of the year it can only be a good thing. Furthermore, the first character of ‘crucian carp’ sounds like ‘gift’ so it’s considered good luck to eat. Fish motifs and decoration will be everywhere to reign in prosperity for the New Year.
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