What is Chinese New Year? Plus, 8 Symbolic Foods to Help You Celebrate

From steamed whole fish and poached whole chicken, to dumplings and longevity noodles, here's how to fill your table for a proper Chinese Lunar New Year celebration.

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Photo: Getty Images / Edwin Tan

The Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, is the largest and most celebrated holiday in Chinese culture. It is an important celebration, especially in mainland China, where people who relocated for work use this opportunity to travel home and visit their families and loved ones. Aside from spending time with family and friends, the 15 days of celebration involve a lot of eating. Families of several generations gather on New Year's Eve—which falls on January 31 this year—for the unity or family reunion dinner. This symbolic dinner starts the celebrations and is a time to give thanks and gratitude for the past year and wish for good fortune in the year ahead.

The foods served during the celebratory period often hold symbolic meanings such as luck, prosperity, happiness and togetherness. How foods are prepared, served and positioned on the dining table also matter. While there is a long list of foods that are part of the celebration, you can discover how to welcome luck and fortune into your life by reading more about these eight commonly eaten Lunar New Year foods.

1. Steamed whole fish

Fish is a homonym for abundance. It symbolizes the Chinese idiom "May you always have more than you need." When served with the head and tail intact, the fish carries an additional meaning: a positive beginning and end for the coming year. Traditionally, half of the fish is saved for the next day. It's a symbolic gesture of hope for long-lasting prosperity—a wish that the year will begin and end with a surplus.

The placement of the steamed fish on the dining table is also crucial. It is customary to place the head pointing toward the elders and guests at the table. The host will let them eat the fish first to show respect.

Traditionally, whole fish such as Chinese mud carp, Chinese catfish or crucian carp are steamed in a bamboo steamer and served at the unity dinner on New Year's Eve. If these options are unavailable in your local market, you may use red snapper or other fish types, as long as the fish is prepared and served whole.

2. Poached whole chicken

A whole chicken represents togetherness and family unity. When an entire chicken is served, including the head and feet, it signifies reunion and completeness. First offering up the chicken to their ancestors for blessings and protection is customary among families who practice ancestral worship. Only then is it served it at the dining table.

The whole chicken is either steamed or poached with scallions and ginger, and is served with a dipping sauce made with cooking oil, soy sauce and finely minced scallion and ginger.

A whole chicken with head and feet may be a rare find at your local market. You may need to look for one from an Asian grocer. Steaming or poaching a whole chicken can also be challenging, so substituting it with a roast chicken may be the next best alternative.

Read More: Why I Think of My Grandmother When I See a Chicken Head

3. Longevity noodles

Is having good luck and a long life among your New Year's wishes? If so, you must try this recipe for Longevity Noodles with Spicy Pork & Vegetables.

Longevity noodles are a celebratory dish served on birthdays and at banquet meals in Chinese restaurants, but it is also traditionally eaten on New Year's Day in Northern China. These noodles will bring a long and happy life to whoever is eating them. According to legend, the longer the noodles, the longer one's life may be, as long as the strands are unbroken during cooking. The noodles may be prepared and served in broth or fried.

4. Dumplings

Dumplings are a staple of Chinese food culture and are an iconic New Year's food that represents wealth. Their appearance resembles silver ingots, an ancient currency used in China. Folk knowledge suggests the more dumplings you can eat during the New Year celebration, the more prosperous you will be in the coming year.

These boat-shaped dumplings are stuffed with minced meat and finely chopped vegetables, and wrapped in a thin layer of dough made from water and flour. You can enjoy them steamed, pan-fried or boiled.

My favorite dumplings during the Spring Festival are gok zai, which is a homonym for a term meaning "being outstanding." They are a Cantonese version of dumplings from the North, also known as sweet fried dumplings. Gok zai filling is a blend of sesame, coconut flakes, peanuts and table sugar, which is wrapped in a thin layer of dough made from wheat and eggs. They are fried in a wok of cooking oil. Unlike the savory dumplings available year-round, you can only find these sweet treats during the weeks leading up to and during the New Year celebratory period.

5. Spring rolls

Spring rolls are more than just pan- or deep-fried appetizers. They are a traditional Lunar New Year food eaten to welcome the spring season. The rolls' stuffing is a mixture of minced meat, shrimp and shredded vegetables that is rolled up in a thin wrapper made from rice flour and water. Their appearance resembles gold bars, so eating them during the New Year celebration implies the hope for good fortune in the year ahead.

6. Vegetables

Historically, it is customary to eat all the remaining vegetables from the garden and plant new ones in the spring. The word vegetable is a homonym for wealth. So, you will see a wide array of vegetables served during the two-week celebration, eaten with the hope for a prosperous year. Easy Eggplant Stir-Fry would be a great addition to your Lunar New Year meals.

7. Sweet rice balls

Sweet rice balls, also known as tang yuan in Mandarin (tong yuen in Cantonese), are a beloved dessert in China. They are enjoyed throughout the Spring Festival in the South, while other people in other parts of the country enjoy them on the 15th day.

Their chewy outer layer is made from glutinous rice flour and water, and the balls are filled with either red bean or sesame paste or crushed peanuts. They are boiled in water and served in a hot, sweet, gingery broth.

These sweets are perfect for concluding a family feast, with their name and shape associated with togetherness and unity.

8. Year cake

If the sweet rice balls do not satisfy your dessert cravings, then you must indulge in chewy and substantial glutinous rice cake, also known as year cake (nian gao in Mandarin and leen go in Cantonese).

This iconic caramel-colored cake originated in the South. Unlike the savory variations of rice cakes eaten throughout China, such as the Shanghainese fried glutinous rice cake, this sweet version is flavored with brown sugar crumbles, cane sugar, coconut milk and sesame paste.

Some may add Chinese red dates (jujube) to the cake batter—made from a blend of glutinous rice flour and wheat or corn starch—because red represents luck and prosperity. One red date is used as a garnish on the cake and has additional meaning. Date is a homonym for early, meaning that you may have an early head start on life.

Eating this rice cake is also meant to bring good luck in the new year. The name, year cake, is a homonym for higher or taller. So, if you are looking for a raise, a promotion or success in your business, or if children hope for better grades or to grow taller, you will not want to miss this dessert. Steam a portion of the cake, slice it into pieces, then serve. Alternatively, dip the uncooked, sliced rectangular pieces into an egg wash and pan-fry.

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