Food is one of the major elements of Chinese culture and is one of the things that Chinese people take the most pride in. Thus, over and above the loud, enthusiastic greetings, red ornaments and traditional practices being observed during the most important festival and holiday in China — the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival — it came as no surprise that people put a lot of care and thought on the food they serve on their tables.
The Chinese community believes that there are certain foods, based on their names and appearances, that could bring good luck for the coming year. While the foods themselves mean a lot, the preparation, and the ways how they are served and eaten also matter.
One of the must-have dishes during the celebration of Chinese New Year is fish as it symbolizes prosperity. The word fish, when pronounced in Mandarin, sounds like “surplus” that implies abundance. Chinese always like to have a surplus, thinking they can make more in the next period if they have managed to save more at the end of the year. Chinese always like to have a surplus, thinking they can make more in the next period if they have managed to save more at the end of the year.
While fish can be cooked in various ways such as boiling, steaming and braising, there are certain rules needed to take note when it is served and eaten. In terms of positioning, the head of the fish should be placed toward distinguished guests or elders as a sign of respect. Meanwhile, diners can enjoy the food only after the one who faces the fish head eats first. It is also important to leave the head and tail intact to symbolize completeness.
Chinese dumplings and spring rolls are other essential dishes to enjoy during the celebration. Dumplings, which are generally consist of minced meat and finely-chopped vegetables wrapped in a thin and elastic dough skin, are believed to symbolize wealth because of its shape similar to a silver ingot, a currency in ancient China. Lucky dumplings have a good number of pleats; a flat one purports poverty.
On New Year’s Eve, it is a tradition to eat dumplings with cabbage and radish for a healthy skin and happy mood throughout the year. There is a belief that the more dumplings a person can eat during the celebration, the more money he or she can make in the new year.
Just like dumplings, spring rolls, which is a Cantonese dim sum dish of cylindrical-shaped rolls filled with a blend of pork, bean sprouts, shredded carrots, cabbage and assorted other veggies, symbolize wealth because of its golden-yellow color that are thought to look like bars of gold.
A good fortune for the new year is also expected if glutinous rice cake, also known as “nian gao,” is served. Nian gao is a homonym for “higher year,” which can imply rise in business success, better grades in study, and promotions at work, among others. For some, glutinous rice cake also symbolizes family cohesiveness because of its quality of being sticky. The main ingredients of this rice cake are sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts, Chinese dates, and lotus leaves.
Similar to other dishes eaten during Chinese New Year celebration, fried sesame ball, a pastry made from glutinous rice covered with sesame seeds and deep fried to a crispy texture outside, represents a good luck due to its round shape and golden color. Also, the fact that it gets bigger in size once fried gives a positive metaphor for growth, may it be in business or personal matters.
Longevity noodles, which are commonly up to two feet long, unsurprisingly signifies a long and healthy life. Legend has it that the longer the noodles served to a person, the longer he or she will live, thus, the longer the noodles, the better. However, there is also a belief that when the noodles accidentally break while cooking, it foreshadows cutting someone’s life short.
Meanwhile, sweet rice ball or “tang yuan” represents harmony and family togetherness. The pronunciation of this gooey ball sounds almost exactly like the word “tuan yuan” that means reunion. Its round shape also signifies everyone joining in unity.
Sweet rice ball is actually the main food during a Lantern Festival, but people in the southern part of China also eat this throughout the Spring Festival.
Certain fruits, such as oranges and tangerines, also have good significance during the Chinese New Year celebration. These fruits are particularly round and golden in color that symbolize fullness and wealth. Chinese also give these as gifts to bring someone good luck and happiness throughout the year.
Moreover, seed-filled pomegranates stand for fertility, while peaches and apples, promises longevity and peace, respectively. Melons and pomelos, on the other hand, are symbolic of family unity. — Mark Louis F. Ferrolino