16 Traditional Foods of Chinese New Year. Know The Symbolism, Recipes and Preparation. Chinese New Year is a major holiday celebrated by Chinese communities worldwide. It marks the beginning of a new lunar year on the traditional Chinese calendar. An important part of the multi-day celebrations is the food – each dish served carries meaning and symbolism.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the symbolism and origins behind popular Chinese New Year foods. You’ll also find recipe ideas and tips to prepare these auspicious foods at home.
Traditional Foods of Chinese New Year
Food plays a central role in Chinese New Year celebrations. The dishes served are meant to bring good luck, prosperity, health and more for the coming year.
Certain ingredients, cooking methods and presentation styles take on symbolic meaning. For example, whole fish and chickens represent togetherness and abundance. Foods like dumplings shaped like ancient Chinese money ingots signify wealth. Orange and tangerine fruits evoke fullness and good fortune.
The foods also adhere to traditions like homophony. Dishes are chosen because their Chinese names sound similar to Chinese New Year wishes and greetings. For instance, fat choy (black moss) sounds like prosperity in Cantonese. Eating it expresses hopes for a prosperous year ahead.
Many dishes are also chosen for color symbolism. Red, gold and orange hues represent luck, happiness and prosperity. Green symbolizes wealth and good health. Avoiding white and black foods prevents misfortune.
Auspicious Chinese New Year Traditional Food and Their Meaning
Here are some of the most significant foods traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year and what they symbolize:
- Fish – Abundance and surplus. Fish sounds like the word for “surplus” in Cantonese. Serving whole fish represents togetherness.
- Dumplings – Wealth and prosperity. Their shape resembles ancient Chinese money ingots.
- Tangyuan (Glutinous Rice Balls) – Family reunions and unity. These round balls represent togetherness when gathered.
- Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake) – Success and prosperity. “Nian Gao” sounds similar to “getting higher year after year.”
- Spring Rolls – Wealth. Their shape and crisp texture resembles gold bars.
- Oranges and Tangerines – Fullness and good fortune. Their bright orange color signifies abundance.
- Fat Choy/Black Moss – Prosperity. It sounds like “striking it rich” in Cantonese.
- Pomelo – Abundance, prosperity and fertility. The Chinese term for pomelo sounds like “to have.”
- Longevity Noodles – Long life. Their extra-long length symbolizes wishing for a long life.
- Whole Chicken – Togetherness of family.
- Lotus Seeds – Many male offspring. Their Chinese name sounds similar to the word for “giving birth to sons.”
- Chinese New Year Cake (Fa Gao) – A raised cake represents prosperity.
- Turnip Cake (Lo Bak Go) – Prosperity in businesses and households.
- Oysters – Good things and good news. Their Chinese name sounds like the words for “good” and “news.”
- Dried Bean Curd and Arrowhead – Good luck. Their names sound like the words for “fortune” and “wealth.”
- Candy and Sweets – A sweet life and good fortune.
Popular Chinese New Year Food Recipes and How to Prepare Them
With symbolism and meaning covered, let’s look at recipes for preparing some of these fortune-invoking foods at home for Chinese New Year:
Nian Gao (Sticky Rice Cake)
This classic treat is made by steaming and pounding glutinous rice flour into a sticky, chewy cake. Basic ingredients include:
- Glutinous/sticky rice flour
- Vegetable oil
Optional flavorings like chestnut, jujube red dates or orange zest are often added. Make sure to steam the cake for several hours until it firms up before slicing and pan-frying until crispy on the outside.
Dumpling fillings vary by region, with popular options like pork, chicken, shrimp, fish and vegetables. Basic dumpling dough includes:
- All-purpose flour
- Boiling water
- Pinch of salt
After kneading the dough, roll it into circles and add a spoonful of filling. Seal edges and pleat into a crescent shape. Boil, steam or pan-fry until cooked through. Serve with soy sauce, chili oil or black vinegar.
Tangyuan (Glutinous Rice Balls)
These festive desserts feature soft glutinous rice dough filled with sweet sesame, peanut or red bean paste. Basic ingredients are:
- Glutinous rice flour
- Hot water
- Filling of choice
- Water for boiling
After rolling the dough into balls around the filling, boil in water until they float. Then serve in a warm ginger syrup or broth.
Spring rolls encompass a wide variety of fillings wrapped in wheat dough skin and deep-fried. Popular fillings include:
- Shredded cabbage
- Bean sprouts
- Vermicelli noodles
- Shiitake mushrooms
Wrap ingredients in spring roll skins and deep fry until golden brown. Many also enjoy dipping the rolls in plum sauce or Chinese rice vinegar.
These extra-long wheat flour noodles represent wishing for a long life. Traditional recipes are simple – cook noodles until al dente and mix with soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions and shredded chicken, pork or fish. For extra length, two bundles of noodles can be tied together before cooking.
This vegetarian stir fry is colorful thanks to ingredients like:
- Bean curd sticks
- Wood ear mushrooms
- Lotus root
- Bamboo shoots
Stir fry the vegetables with soy sauce, rice wine and seasonings. Some versions also add noodles or tofu for protein. The multitude of ingredients symbolizes abundance.
Whole Steamed Fish
Steaming a whole fish from head to tail intact represents togetherness. Coat with shredded ginger, scallions and rice wine before steaming. Serving the fish is also symbolic – the head faces the most senior family member while the tail faces the youngest.
Pomelos are often displayed as decoration or served as a refreshing dessert. Peel the citrus fruit and separate the sweet, juicy segments. Eat plain or drizzle with honey. Including the rich yellow rind adds to the auspicious color symbolism.
Preparing Your Chinese New Year Meal and Table
When planning your Chinese New Year meal, aim for at least 8-10 dishes overall. Have a mix of vegetables, proteins, noodles and rice. Include soup and dessert as well. Set your table with festive decorations using red, gold and orange. Display fruits and candles prominently.
Have fish and meat dishes served whole with head and tail intact. Leave small leftovers of foods like rice and fish for symbolizing abundance in the year ahead. Seat seniors and married couples near the head of the table, with children and unmarried guests at the other end.
Most importantly, relax and enjoy the reunion feast with loved ones. Use the many symbolic foods to express your new year wishes and hopes. With thoughtful preparation of auspicious ingredients, you’ll ring in a happy, healthy and prosperous Lunar New Year.
Common Questions and Answers About Chinese New Year Food
Here are some commonly asked questions and answers about foods eaten during Chinese New Year:
What are the most traditional Chinese New Year foods?
- Some of the most traditional festive foods include dumplings, nian gao (sticky rice cake), whole fish, longevity noodles, spring rolls, and tangyuan (glutinous rice balls). Fruits like oranges and pomelo are also very symbolic.
Why do they eat dumplings on Chinese New Year?
- Dumplings are especially popular because their shape resembles ancient Chinese tael, or money ingots. Eating them symbolizes gaining wealth and prosperity in the coming year. Their dough folds also resemble ears, implying listening to good news in the future.
What kind of fish do they eat on Chinese New Year?
- Carp is the most traditional fish eaten, but any whole fish with head and tail intact works. They represent togetherness and abundance for the family.
What do the orange and tangerine fruits symbolize?
- Oranges and tangerines symbolize wealth and fullness. Their bright, golden-orange color signifies prosperity and good fortune. The Cantonese word for tangerine also sounds similar to gold.
Why do they eat noodles on Chinese New Year?
- Longevity noodles are slurped on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Their length represents wishing for a long life. They should be uncut as cutting symbolizes cutting life short.
What deserts do they eat on Chinese New Year?
- Popular sweet treats include tangyuan (glutinous rice balls), nian gao (sticky rice cake), and fa gao (prosperity cake). Candy, dried fruit and nuts are served as well, to represent a sweet, rich life.
What is the significance of egg rolls?
- Egg rolls symbolize wealth because their crisp, golden exterior resembles a gold bar. The shredded vegetables inside represent prosperity.
Should you avoid any foods during Chinese New Year?
Avoid eating the following inauspicious foods:
- White and black colored foods (symbolizing mourning)
- Raw foods (considered difficult to digest)
- Porridge and thread-like noodles (they cut longevity)
- Meat stewed with soy sauce (the dark color is inauspicious)
- Beef and dog meat (traditionally avoided)
- Lobster or crab (they move backwards, implying setbacks)
- Chrysanthemum tea or morsels (linked to funerals)