By Elaine Dunn

The Year of the Monkey is just around the corner.  If you are thinking of throwing a party at home in celebration, be sure you know what auspicious foods to include!  Additionally, the number of dishes served should be six, eight or 10, which means smooth, getting rich and perfect respectively.

Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival or Lunar New Year, is probably one of the most important Chinese celebrations for all Chinese the world over.  Given the importance of food in Chinese culture, it is no surprise that foods will be the centerpiece of any New Year celebration.  Chinese New Year is not only a time for family to get together, it is also the time for households to honor heavenly deities and pay respects to ancestors.

Foods with special significance and why

What gives certain foods their sway to impart luck and good fortune?  Some are based on their shapes; others are based on the sound of their names.  Traditionally, Chinese New Year celebrations start on New Year’s Eve when families gather for a reunion dinner and to celebrate the departure of the Kitchen God (so he can report to the higher heavenly authorities the favourable behavior of the family during the past year).  

Tangyuan or yuanxiao    Top on the food list for this occasion, like in hundreds of years past, dumplings are sure to make their appearance!  Why?  Because they are round in shape, signifying the completeness of the family itself.  The dumplings are glutinous rice balls served in a ginger-infused syrup.  However, they also may be savory or with no filling at all, just flavored by the broth/syrup in which they are served.  The fillings also differ by region.  In the south, fillings usually are sweet, made from sesame paste, osmanthus flowers or sweet bean paste.  In the north, fillings are savory, made with minced meat and vegetables.  In the south, the dumplings are known as or tangyuan (湯圓) and, in the north, they’re called yuanxiao (元宵).

Dumplings also are usually eaten on the first, fifth and fifteenth days during the 15-day New Year celebration.  The ones eaten outside of New Year’s Eve can be made to look like old-time Chinese silver ingots, which are boat-shaped, oval, and turned up at the two ends.  And, the more ingot dumplings you eat during the New Year celebration, the more money you will make in the New Year. 

Noodles    This food item represents longevity and it’s always eaten uncut.  In fact, serve them in as long a length as you can.

Spring rolls    They look like gold bars!  The fresh vegetables inside represent spring time so people eat them to welcome a new spring.

Whole fish    Chinese pronunciation for fish is “yu,” which sounds like “surplus” or “abundance.”  The entire fish, including head and tail, has to be served.  

How you eat the fish also has huge significance.  The fish dish should always be the last dish with some left over.  In southern China, some people just eat the middle part of the fish on New Year’s Eve, leaving the head and tail for the following day to signify completeness as well as expressing hope that the new year will start and end with surplus.  Other fish “rules” are:

The head should be placed toward distinguished guests or elders, representing respect. 

Diners can enjoy the fish only after the guest who faces the fish head eats first. 

The fish shouldn't be turned over or moved.  The two diners who face the head and tail of the fish should drink together, as this is considered to bring luck. 

Niangâo    In Chinese, this sticky rice flour cake (年糕) sounds like “getting higher year-by-year,” which the Chinese have taken to mean growing taller or getting promoted year after year.  The main ingredients of niangão are sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts and Chinese dates.

Jai    This vegetarian dish is eaten because it is part of the Buddhist tradition to cleanse oneself with vegetables.  The dish also is packed with ingredients that signify good luck: black sea moss, which sounds like “get rich” for prosperity; dried oysters which sound like “good things” for good business; lotus seeds for children/birth of sons; cellophane noodles for longevity; lily buds for “100 years of harmonious union;” and Chinese black mushrooms to “fulfill wishes from east to west.”

Long beans    As with noodles, they also represent longevity.   

Good fortune fruits    Certain fruits such as tangerines, oranges and pomeloes are eaten as they are particularly round and “gold” in color, symbolizing fullness and wealth, but also for how their names are written in Chinese characters and how they sound when spoken.  For example, pomelo is “柚” (yòu) sounds like “有” (yǒu), to have; tangerine (桔 jú) contains the character for luck (吉 jí ).

Prosperity tray    The circular or octagonal-shaped tray is commonplace at Chinese New Year. It should have eight sides because the number eight is the Chinese lucky number meaning “get rich.”  The tray is filled with eight symbolic sweets: candied melon which represents growth and good health; melon seeds dyed red to symbolize joy, happiness, truth and sincerity; lychee nuts represent strong family relationships; kumquats for prosperity or gold; dried coconut meat strips represent togetherness; peanuts symbolize long life; the longan represents many good sons; and lotus seeds symbolize many children.

Adults must place a lai see or red envelope with money within in the center of this tray after enjoying a piece of its contents. 

Sweets    A typical Hong Kong sweet is a deep-fried dumpling with a crispy sweet crust with chopped, sweet peanuts inside.  In Cantonese, these are known as “gog jai.”  The sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life.  This “must have” for Chinese New Year bears the shape and gold color of gold bullions, a sure sign of wealth.



Here’s to another year of enjoying these age-old New Year treats that taste as good as they sound!  Eat up and to all,  恭禧發財!


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