Chinese American cookbook author Grace Young shares why she always makes a centerpiece of tangerines, oranges and pomelos to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Grace Young
February 11, 2021
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A bowl of citrus fruits with a lucky envelope and ingot
Grace Young's citrus fruit display for the New Year includes tangerines, oranges, pomelo, a red money envelope and a golden ingot.
| Credit: Grace Young

To celebrate Lunar New Year—aka Chinese New Year—I always make a fruit centerpiece featuring a pomelo, at least two tangerines, ideally with shiny green leaves attached, and lots of oranges. I also tuck in a red "lucky-money" envelope—more about this in a sec.

The Chinese love citrus fruits as much as they love word play, puns and especially homonyms—words that sound like other words. Because the Chinese word for tangerine sounds like "luck" and the word for orange sounds like "wealth," the fruits are prized both for table display and gift giving during Chinese New Year. The shape of the orange fruit is also important. My friend Alice Liu, owner of Grand Tea & Imports in New York City's Chinatown, told me her mother loves a rhyme about how tangerines and oranges portend silver and gold "rolling in" for the New Year. Who wouldn't want such auspicious citrus on hand at all times?

The pomelo, a large, domed yellow fruit, is considered especially powerful. Not only is its citrusy fragrance thought to ward off bad luck, the fresh or dried rind and/or large green leaves can be steeped in warm water and used to bathe the body in a cleansing ritual performed on Chinese New Year's Eve to banish evil spirits that might be lurking about. For even more luck, many Chinese people also decorate their homes and gardens with potted kumquat trees bursting with the small oval fruit that can be plucked and eaten as bittersweet treats.

As children, my brother and I would wake up to find two tangerines, two oranges and two red lucky-money envelopes by our pillows on New Year's morning. The envelopes, usually containing coins or cash, are traditionally given to children by elders in the belief that the money will protect them from harm. Again word play explains why: "lucky money," ya sui qian, literally means to "press down evil."

During Chinese New Year, my mother was always prepared to hand out lucky-money red envelopes to the children of family and friends. This year, the Year of the Ox, I bought my beautiful envelopes from Grand Tea & Imports. They're richly embossed in gold with the strong and dependable beast standing by, sure to protect and delight little ones while bringing all of us extra blessings.

Grace Young is the author of numerous books on Chinese cuisine, including The Breath of a Wok and Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge. Read her article 9 Things You Can Do Right Now to Save Your Local Chinatown.