The annual two-week festival of Chinese New Year is upon us! As the Year of the Dog (2018 to 2019) gives way to the Year of the Pig (2019 to 2020), it’s time for family and friends to come together in celebration and exchange wishes for luck, health, and prosperity. Read on to learn how you can celebrate the Chinese New Year with some traditional and delicious foods.
About Chinese New Year
Also known as the Spring Festival and Lunar New Year, the Chinese New Year does not have a fixed Gregorian calendar date; instead, it’s tied to the Chinese lunar calendar. The weeklong festival happens in winter when people look forward to the renewal of spring. The Chinese New Year (春节, Chūn Jié, or “chwn-jyeah”) has been observed for more than 3,000 years. As people of Chinese origin have spread around the globe, it has become a globally celebrated event.
The Year of the Pig officially begins February 5, 2019 (with the weeklong celebration spanning from the 4th to the 10th), and will give way to the Year of the Rat on January 25, 2020. People observing Chinese New Year often celebrate with special decorations, firecrackers and fireworks, and red envelopes (filled with “lucky money”)—but that’s not all.
An integral part of the Chinese New Year? Food. Families come together for a special New Year’s Eve Dinner (年夜饭, Nián Yèfàn), also known as a Reunion Dinner (团年饭, Tuán Niánfàn). Special foods are an essential component of the Chinese New Year. They may have particular symbolic meanings in Chinese culture or could be considered lucky if the name of a food sounds similar to Chinese words for luck or wealth.
However you share or observe Chinese New Year this year, here are six foods essential to the holiday. We break down what they are, why they’re significant, and how they’re made and served.
Oranges (橙, chéng) and Pomelos (柚, yòu)
Citrus fruits are commonly given as gifts during this season, in part because of their appearance or because of their Chinese names.
In Chinese, the word for “pomelo” (柚, yòu) sounds like the word for “to have” (有, yǒu). Tangerines, mandarins, and kumquats are said to evoke gold, so having them can bring wealth and increase prosperity. The word for “orange or tangerine” (橙, chéng) sounds like the Chinese word for “success” (成, chénggōng). An alternate way to write “tangerine” is (桔, jú), which is comprised of the Chinese character for luck (吉, jí).
Dumplings (餃子, Jiaozi)
Chinese dumplings symbolize great wealth. Depending on how they are prepared, dumplings can be made to resemble silver ingots or gold bars.
These dumplings come from China’s colder northern regions, where wheat is commonly used in dumpling wrappers and other foods. Fillings can vary; a popular type combines the following ingredients:
- Ground pork
- Shaoxing wine
- White pepper
- White cabbage
- Sesame oil
- Soy sauce
Vegetarian versions may include:
- Minced Chinese white radish
- Five-spice tofu
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Cooked glass noodles
Once filled and shaped, dumplings can be quickly boiled, steamed, or pan-fried. Families often cook large quantities of dumplings, storing leftovers for a quick dish to serve when family visit throughout the days and nights of Chinese New Year.
Spring Rolls (春卷, Chūn Juǎn) or Egg Rolls (蛋卷, Dàn Juǎn)
Spring rolls naturally tie into the Spring Festival and have traditionally been prepared for the occasion. Similar to dumplings, egg rolls and spring rolls may resemble gold bars. Also commonly made with a combination of pork, shrimp, aromatics, and vegetables, spring rolls served during Chinese New Year symbolize wealth.
Fillings may include:
- Shredded carrot
- Shiitake mushrooms
- Bean sprouts
- Oyster sauce
Once filled and rolled, spring rolls are deep-fried for a crunchy shell that gives way to the soft, aromatic, complex filling.
Longevity Noodles (长寿面, Chángshòu Miàn)
When it comes to symbolism, it’s hard to find a better example than longevity noodles, also known as long-life noodles. The length of the noodles varies (some noodles are two feet or longer, and others use just one incredibly long noodle), but the point of the dish is to wish long life upon the person eating it.
These long noodles, typically called “e-fu” or “yi mein,” are meant to stay exactly that: long. Cutting the noodles into small pieces is frowned upon, as it means the person’s life is to be cut short.
Longevity noodles are often a simpler dish and may be part of an egg drop soup. They may also contain a protein, mushrooms, and/or green vegetable. Some versions are also fried and served on a plate instead of a bowl.
Rice Cake (年糕 =, Nián Gao)
In Chinese legend, rice cakes would be prepared and served to a Chinese god of the kitchen, in the hopes that when the god returned to heaven prior to the new year, the god would speak well of the family.
Translating as sticky cake, the Chinese words nián and gāo sound like the Chinese words for “year” and “tall.” So eating Chinese-style glutinous rice cakes have become synonymous with having wishes to make yourself more successful (metaphorically taller, so to speak) during the coming year. This is commonly thought of as increasing income, getting a promotion, or starting a new or better job.
These sweet cakes also symbolize having a sweet life. Additionally, the round, whole cake evokes the family coming together.
Instead of being baked, rice cakes are traditionally steamed, which keeps them moist and tender. Modern versions can also be baked, and some versions contain Western-style ingredients such as butter and eggs. Traditional versions typically contain only three ingredients: rice flour, sugar, and water; they cook in a bamboo steamer.
Whole Fish (鱼, Yú)
When it comes to a new year, whatever our culture and however we celebrate, we look forward to a year that brings us something better. In the case of the Chinese New Year, serving whole fish symbolizes that wish for more prosperity.
The Chinese word for “fish” sounds like the Chinese word for “surplus.” Traditionally, Chinese people believed in having a surplus of money or goods at the end of the year, because having something left over meant they could make more in the year to come.
However, while the fish might be boiled, braised, or steamed, not just any fish will do. Specific fish have specific meanings during Chinese New Year.
- Crucian carp (鲫鱼, jìyú): The first character sounds similar to the Chinese word for “good luck,” (吉 , jí), so crucian carp is said to bring good luck throughout the year.
- Chinese mud carp (鲤鱼 , lǐyú): Evokes the word for “gifts” (礼, lǐ). Eating mud carp means you wish for good fortune.
- Catfish (鲶鱼 , niányú): Sounds like (年余 , nián yú), which means “year surplus”. To eat catfish is to express your wish that you will finish the year with a surplus to help you have more success in the year to come.
- Eating two fish (one on New Year’s Eve and one on New Year’s Day) can evoke a wish to have an ongoing surplus each year.
The significance doesn’t stop at the variety of fish, either. Typically how the fish is served and presented matters a great deal too.
- Show respect to elders or important guests by placing the head toward them.
- The person facing the fish’s head must eat before anyone else can have some of the fish.
- The fish should stay where it is on the table.
- Whoever faces the fish’s head and fish’s tail should drink together for luck.
And as you bite into that New Year fish, give out a hearty “Niánnián yǒu yú,” (年年有余, “nyen-nyen yo yoo”), which means “May you always have more than you need!”
However you say it, have a happy Chinese New Year!
Whether you travel abroad or celebrate the occasion stateside, there are many ways to celebrate the Chinese New Year. You can try to make some of these dishes yourself or you can find them at food carts and restaurants around the country. Here are a few Zerocater’s restaurants and caterers partners to check out:
- Austin, Texas
- Los Angeles
- New York City
- San Francisco Bay Area
No matter where your Chinese New Year adventures take you, as we head into the Year of Pig, “xin nian kuai le” (Mandarin: “shin nee-an kwai le” or the formal “happy new year”), “xin nian hao” (Mandarin: “shin nee-an how” or “good new year”) and in Cantonese, “may you be prosperous in the year ahead,” “gong hei fat choy!”