5 Foods for Chinese New Year
February is always an exciting time in China because Chinese New Year will usually fall sometime within this short month. Like many other festivals and holidays around the world, food is an integral part of the celebration. In China’s history in the past hundred years or so, Chinese New Year was one of the only times that the average families would be able to eat such lavish feasts. Even though in present day China, you can now get as many dumplings as you want, whenever you want, the food aspect of the holiday still does not change. Of course, it is not seen to be as special as it was before, but the time and preparation put into the Chinese New Year meal makes it just as important.
There are some staple foods that almost every family will prepare during the Chinese New Year. Since the official holiday is sixteen days long, there are certain lucky foods you should eat in various days. The most important meal is during New Year’s Eve, as what you eat here will determine the upcoming year.
The foods that are eaten during this time usually has a specific meaning as to why you are eating it. Some of it will come from the shapes of foods, while others will come from the names of the foods and play on words. Since the Chinese language is full of characters that sound alike, this can be quite entertaining to see the connections. Some foods will widely vary depending on where you are in China, but for the most part, you can expect to find some of the below foods for your meal.
If you are planning to celebrate Chinese New Year at home and want to know what to add to the menu or are in China and need to know what to expect, here are some foods you can get excited for:
Dumplings are now a popular food year-round, and you can usually buy a huge plate of them for a very cheap price. During Chinese New Year, it is customary for people to make their own dumplings. From making the filling to hand-kneading the dough, it often is a process for everyone (usually women) in the family to participate. It is said that the shape of the dumpling is similar to that of the plump shoe-shaped gold ingots that were used during ancient times. This is why dumplings represent good fortune and luck for the upcoming year.
There are many variations of how to cook the dumplings. Since in Northern China, dumplings will be consumed even more than in other areas, they will vary the taste by boiling, frying and steaming them. The stuffing inside will also have different tastes, from cabbage to mushroom, bringing a variety of flavors to the table.
Of course, the sweet dumpling, or 汤圆 (tang yuan, directly translated into “Soup Round”) is also a popular dessert or breakfast food. The sweet paste usually made of sugar, sesame, or peanut, along with the sticky rice, make for a yummy end to the meal. The round and sweetness of the food itself symbolizes good reunion. The sweet dumpling is also eaten in other Chinese festivals around the year, and is seen as a treat.
Though you might see these pancakes everyday being sold on the street, they are also a part of the Chinese New Year menu. As Chinese New Year is also coined ‘Spring Festival’, it may be obvious why the Spring Pancake is a dietary choice. The Spring pancake along with fresh vegetables is meant to give the person good health and the energy of spring.
This one might seem like an obvious choice. Since rice is almost eaten every day in a typical Chinese household, it would seem weird not to have it during the holidays as well. Some variations of what you may typically imagine with a bowl of rice comes these rice dishes:
The Rice Cake is mainly made of sticky rice. Sometimes yellow and white ones would be made to represent gold and silver. The rice cake is called 年糕 (nian gao), and has the same pronunciation as if you would say “live long”.
Rice Cooked with Other Grains including millet or corn are popular. The golden colors of the grain symbolize the gold while the rice represents silver. Eating this for the New Year is seen as a sign of wealth and fortune for the new year.
Qi Bao Soup
Qi Bao Soup, known as 七宝汤 (qibao tang), means “seven valuables”. This soup is made from ground rice and seven different vegetables. The vegetables will vary depending on location and what is available.
鱼 (yu), which means fish, has the same sound to the Chinese word for ‘surplus’ 余 (yu). Traditionally it is eaten on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, though now most families will include it in their New Year’s Eve meal. Depending on where you are in China, the preparation of the fish will be widely different. From eating raw salmon in Guangzhou, to steaming it in vinegar and spice, each region will have its own way of cooking it.
Even the type of fish you eat can mean certain things for the upcoming year. Below are just a few of the different fishes you can choose from to give yourself some luck for the next year.
Catfish: In Chinese, ‘catfish’ is 鲶鱼 (nian yu). The sounds are the same for the word for ‘year of surplus’ or 年余 (nian yu).
Chinese mud carp: The word for this type of fish is 鲤鱼 (li yu), where the first character has the same sound to the word ‘gift’ or 礼 (li). It is thought that eating the Chinese mud carp will bring a surplus of gifts and good fortune within the next year.
Crucian carp: The ‘Crucian carp’ in Chinese is 鲫鱼 (ji yu), where the first character has the same sound to a word for ‘good luck’. 吉 (ji).
Finally, eating two fish, one on New Year’s Eve and another on New Year’s Day, is said to bring a surplus of goods year-after-year. There is also a tradition to how the fish is eaten. It is usually saved as the last dish of the dinner. Some places will not eat the head and tail until after the beginning of the year, in order to express the start and finish of the year to all be in surplus. Of course, most people will not take any of these rules too seriously, as it is all in good fun.
Have you ever experienced Chinese New Year in China or your home country? Did you have any of the foods listed above? Are there any other traditions you participated in? Let us know in the comments below, we would love to hear from you!