January 1st is considered worldwide to be the start of a New Year. However, in China and in a large part of South East Asia, the lunar calendar traditionally indicates when Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year (chūnjié), begins. The exact date is never the same as its dependent on moon movements.
In China, the New Year revelries involve firecrackers, red decorations and red envelopes, called hóngbāo, containing cash gifts. Celebrations include following special traditional customs, The preparation of lucky foods and dishes and it is no different this year! The merriment spans throughout a whole week coinciding with marking the end of winter, and consequently this period is also referred to as the ‘Spring Festival.’
People usually travel to be with their family during this traditional festival. The festivities kick off with a shared meal and a plethora of food. Most of the dishes prepared and served are homophonic in terms of the pronunciation or appearance of the food. The name of the dish often sounds like the Chinese meaning for good luck, prosperity, and long life, or the appearance of a dish will denote positive elements. Though the preparation of dishes served may vary from province to province, by and large the items are the same.
We are very lucky to have lived in China for the last five years as well as other countries where this festival is celebrated. We have had the chance to join in with celebrations and taste lots of these traditional lucky foods.
Serving whole fish, usually carp or catfish, is symbolic of prosperity. Two whole fish are served, one on New Year’s Eve, and another on New Year’s day, with leftovers that are symbolic of a ‘surplus’ to be enjoyed in the coming year. The fish is served steamed, braised or boiled, with pickled cabbage, soya or vinegar sauce. Remember that the meanings of the food are important. Mud carp (lǐyú) sounds like gift (lǐ) while catfish (niányú) sounds like the word for ‘year surplus.’
The longevity noodles (Cháng Shòu Miàn) are served in different preparations, with the most common dish being noodles stir-fried with meats and vegetables, or in a soup. The longer the noodle, the longer one’s life. Hand pulled noodles as long as two metres are cooked and served for the Lunar New Year feast.
Various types of dumplings (jiǎozi) are integral to Chinese cuisine and are representative of wealth. Dumplings are shaped in different ways, but the most significant ones for the Lunar New Year celebrations are those shaped to resemble a silver ingot or boat shape. It is believed that the more dumplings one eats, the more wealth one gets! The dumplings are stuffed with ground pork, chicken, or beef, mixed with vegetables and more commonly cabbage. Mushrooms, prawns, and other ingredients might be added before serving them fried, steamed, or boiled.
Sweet rice cakes are prepared from glutinous rice, and their traditional name Niángāo translates as ‘getting higher each year’ indicating a higher position or a higher income. In some regions, the eight-treasure sticky rice cake is prepared using the same glutinous rice with added treasures such as dried fruits like pears and cranberries, jujube, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, raisins, walnuts, with an added central filling of red adzuki bean paste.
Apart from the name itself indicating the coming of spring, these long golden spring rolls (Chūnjuǎn) represent gold bars, and hence prosperity. Meat and vegetables are rolled into a very thin pastry dough and usually deep fried. However, for the health conscious and in the modern kitchen, they may be pan fried or air fried.
Sweet rice balls
Called tāngyuán, these sweet rice balls symbolise togetherness and family. Traditionally eaten during the Lantern Festival, which is two weeks after New Year’s Day, these sweet balls are now often consumed throughout the festivities. The balls made from glutinous rice or rice flour are stuffed with red beans, peanuts or black sesame, and boiled in a sweet broth made of water and sugar, with a mild ginger flavouring. The balls and broth are served as a sweet soup!
In Asia, fruits are a part of all auspicious ceremonies and festivals. For the Lunar New Year, 7 kinds of fruit have special meanings and are widely gifted to family and friends, as well as served to guests. Oranges, tangerines and kumquats stand for good luck and happiness. Pomelos, in whatever colour or shape symbolize family reunion. Apples are often stamped with quotes and wishes such as good luck and good wealth. Grapes, pineapples, pomegranates and sugarcane complete this list and stand for more wealth, good luck, longevity, prosperity and abundance! Keep in mind that these fruits are always gifted in ‘even’ numbers, except the number four which sounds similar to the word death and is considered unlucky.
Apart from the main food items, several snacks are laid out for guests who visit. Regional variations abound and the snacks are symbolic and have deeper meanings. Sweets for a sweet life, red dates for prosperity, sunflower seeds for many sons and grandsons, peanuts for vitality and longevity, and dried longans for reunion. Other popular snacks are pineapple tarts, crispy love letters (rolls) made from flour, coconut milk and sugar, crispy honeycomb and bak kwa or sweet pork slices. The number eight is auspicious and often these snacks are served on a tray or platter that has eight compartments.