Traditional dishes & food for the Chinese New Year
Table of Contents
- 1 Traditional dishes & food for the Chinese New Year
- 1.1 Bak Kwa
- 1.2 Buddha’s delight
- 1.3 Chinese black musk, Fat Choy
- 1.4 Chinese dumplings
- 1.5 Cured meat and sausages
- 1.6 Hot pot
- 1.7 Longevity Noodles
- 1.8 Poon Choi
- 1.9 Raw fish salad
- 1.10 Spring rolls
- 1.11 Steamed buns
- 1.12 Sweet Glutinous Rice Balls
- 1.13 Vegetable dishes for the Lunar New Year
- 1.14 Whole fish
- 1.15 Whole steamed chicken
- 1.16 Legend of some of the vegetables and roots that take on symbolic values:
- 1.17 Legends of some ingredients present in dishes and served on Chinese tables during the Lunar New Year festival that have a certain symbolism:
- 1.18 Sources
The list of the top dishes and food to eat during the Lunar New Year according to the Chinese culinary tradition.
Bak Kwa 肉干 (Ròu gān), is a salty-sweet dried meat product. Bakkwa is made with a technique of preservation and preparation of the meat originating from Fujian, marinated with spices and sugar. There are regional variations throughout Asia for example in Singapore and Malaysia it has a more smoky flavor than their mainland Chinese counterparts as the meat is grilled over charcoal. This barbecued sweetmeat is extremely popular during the Chinese New Year celebration. For its red color is considered a good omen, since in Chinese tradition it symbolizes luck, wealth, and prosperity. According to an article by the National Library Board, it is emphasized that once the meat in Fujian province was reserved only for special occasions such as the New Year. The South China Morning Post notes that the dish arrived in Singapore and Malaysia in the 15th century with Fujian migrants. The dish was then reinvented to suit local Southeast Asian tastes and has since become very popular.
This dish, Buddha’s delight, 羅漢 齋, 罗汉 斋 (Luóhàn zhāi) is a kind of mixed salad, usually made up of at least ten ingredients, although the more elaborate versions can include 35. It’s served during the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, is a vegan dish of Chinese and Buddhist cuisine. Its richer version has a base of seaweed called in Cantonese fat choy, whose name sounds similar to “prosperity”.
Chinese black musk, Fat Choy
In Cantonese tradition, it is very important to have on the festive table black musk, 髮菜 (fàcài) also known as Fat Choy, during the Chinese New Year celebrations. This hairy mushroom has a name that sounds like “Prosperity” and is usually braised with dried oysters and other vegetables. When cooked with dried oysters, it’s called Fat Choy Ho See. While it might sound a little odd, Fat Choy black mold is very nutritious and appears to have some beneficial effects. It is a nutritious source of vitamins and is also a rich source of antioxidants and minerals. Eating it is usually said to loved ones 恭喜 發財 (Kung Hei Fat Choi) or “I wish you prosperity”.
Chinese dumplings 饺子 (Jiǎo zi) are a classic food traditionally eaten on the eve of the Chinese New Year as they symbolize wealth. Their name 饺子 (jiǎo zi) sounds like 交 子 (jiāo zi). 交 (Jiāo) which means “exchange” and 子 (zi) is the midnight hours, together, jiāo zi is the exchange between the old and the new year. Dumplings resemble gold bars (Yuan Bao). Some people wrap dumplings in bullion shapes 招财进宝 (zhāo cái jìn bǎo) wishing wealth and treasure, a happy desire to make money and build fortunes. Legend said that the more dumplings someone eats during the New Year celebrations, the more money this person can make in the coming year. The most common dumplings are generally made up of minced meat and finely chopped vegetables, wrapped in a thin and elastic dough. Popular fillings are minced pork, diced shrimp, fish, ground chicken, beef, and greens. They can be cooked boiled, steamed, stir-fried, or fried. Different fillings have different meanings. For example, the ones with the stuffing of strips of meat and bamboo are called 丝丝 齐齐 (sī sī qí qí), which means that everything someone needs will be available. Traditionally, Chinese people don’t eat dumplings stuffed just with Chinese sauerkraut 酸菜 (suāncài / swann-tseye) at the Spring Festival, because it implies a poor and difficult future. On New Year’s Eve, it is traditional to eat dumplings with cabbage and radish, which means a wish of goodness and kindness. In addition to the pleasure of eating this delicious food, the making process is also a family bonding activity. During the preparations for the new year, each member of the family participates and wraps the dumplings. When preparing dumplings, the number of folds is also considered important, or if you make the intersection too flat, it is thought to symbolize poverty. Some Chinese people put a white thread inside a dumpling, to wish longevity to those who eat it. Sometimes a copper coin is placed instead and whoever finds it should become rich. Dumplings should be arranged in lines rather than circles, because, in this specific case, circles are supposed to mean that one’s life will go in circles, never going anywhere. Yau gok also known as 角 仔 (Gok zai) or 油 角 (Jau gok) consumed in the area of Canton, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, are special Chinese dumplings made with gluten rice paste that is fried. They can be salty or sweet and they wish wealth. Many different types of dumplings differ in cooking and/or filling.
Cured meat and sausages
In the past, during the 12th lunar month, pigs, poultry, and fish were dried and stored. For this reason, even in contemporary China, in addition to local market vendors, many families in small towns and villages continue to prepare their meats by hanging them on window sills. Pork 腊肉 (larou), duck, cow, chicken salted with spices and dried in the air is later used for cold dishes or to make sausages that can be served and eaten directly or prepared to flavor the various traditional local dishes.
The hot pot 火锅 (Huǒ guō) is another food that has a long history and is savored by some families or groups of friends during the Chinese New Year the bubbling soup of the hot pot gives off a warm and festive feeling. The Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty is said to have been a very avid fan. When he threw parties for senior and retired officials, there were always hot pots with meat on the menu. During the last dinner of the year, there were more than 120 dishes for lunch and even more for the hot pot. Hot pots are quite simple to prepare and there are endless versions of them. It’s simply a pot, in which a special broth boils with dishes of meat, fish, and raw vegetables, that are gradually cooked. Each diner chooses what he/she wants to cook in the pot. Once cooked, people share and eat. The flavor comes from the broth that was previously chosen. Once cooked, the ingredients can be dipped in special sauces to taste. Since it’s an extremely customizable dish, each family creates their recipes based on their preferences. This meal enjoyed in this form creates a strong sense of sharing, collaboration, encourages harmony, and symbolizes unity.
Longevity noodles 长寿面 (Chángshòu Miàn) is a must-have dish for Chinese New Year celebrations. Longevity noodles are longer than normal noodles and cannot be cut or broken. Symbolically represent the long life of the eater and the desire for longevity. A wish for happiness and healthy life. Any type of long noodles is considered a good auspicious during Chinese New Year. The longer the noodles, the better. There are different types of noodles: fresh, dried, and they also can be made of rice flour or even with beans flour. They can be served fried, stir-fried, or boiled with or without broth. Noodles are a sign of hope for all the guests around the table to enjoy a long and happy life. In some places, it’s custom to cook dumplings and noodles together. This dish is called gold ingots and gold silk. It’s another dish to wish for prosperity.
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Poon Choi, Puhn choi or Pen Cai 盆菜 (pén cài) from traditional Cantonese cuisine has spread throughout Asia. It’s a large pot with a rich variety of ingredients stacked on top of each other. On the bottom are layers of vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, radish, broccoli, and mushrooms, which are placed to absorb the juices and fat from the meat that are on top. The layers consist of chicken, duck, pork, and beef, on top of them, in the higher layers there can be seafood such as fish jaws, shrimp, crabs, fish balls, and even abalones. The pot is simmered until all the ingredients cook together to give a rich and savory flavor. According to tradition, this dish was invented during the late Song dynasty, when Mongolian troops invaded China. At that time, the young emperor fled to the area around Guangdong province and Hong Kong. To serve the emperor and his army, the locals gathered all their best food available and cooked it together in a single pot. This dish is associated with celebrations and parties. It has also become popular with some families for Chinese New Year celebrations as it contains a large amount of many auspicious ingredients. This dish also represents Hong Kong’s food culture and creativity. Although it is a traditional cuisine of Hong Kong’s walled villages, the ingredients have changed over the past few decades and have become more diversified to suit people’s different palates and tastes. Over the years this specialty has taken on significant and symbolic meanings linked to cultural aspects: it is considered a meal that respects the ancestors since it uses the best and freshest ingredients of the native village, and at the same time indicates a great spirit of hospitality towards visitors; To prepare the dish it takes good teamwork and unity. The respected villagers become the main chefs, guiding and instructing the rest of the village in the preparation of the meal; different walled villages have different cooking methods to prepare Poon choi in harmony with their customs, this reflects their different family legacies, generations, and lineages. So it becomes a symbol of continuity; since it is a meal that both rich and poor enjoy, it creates a sense of equality, everyone can participate in parties indiscriminately. All these symbols encourage luck.
Raw fish salad
Raw fish salad 魚 生 (Yusheng, yee sang or yuu sahng) or the launch of prosperity is a Cantonese salad. It usually consists of strips of raw fish (sometimes salmon), mixed with chopped vegetables and a variety of sauces and toppings. There is also a vegetarian version of this dish, in which fish is replaced with soy “fish”. Each ingredient has a special meaning associated with it. Yusheng literally means “raw fish” but since “fish” 魚 is commonly confused with its homophone “abundance” 余, Yúshēng 魚 生 is interpreted as Yúshēng 余 升 which means an increase in abundance. Therefore, this dish is considered a symbol of abundance, prosperity, wealth, success, youth, vigor, and vitality. The origins of this dish are linked to the fishermen of the Guangzhou coast who traditionally celebrated the Renri, “Everyone’s birthday” 人日 (ren ri), on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, feasting on their fresh fish. The practice of eating thinly sliced raw fish dates back to ancient Chinese traditions, but the current form of yusheng is believed to have started in Chaozhou and Shantou as early as the Southern Song Dynasty. The launch ceremony is also called “Lou Hei“. Family and friends get together to vigorously toss the salad, exchanging good wishes and auspicious phrases. It is said that the higher you toss the salad, the greater your fortunes, and the new year will be prosperous.
Spring rolls 春卷 (Chūnjuǎn – chwnn jwen) get their name because they are traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival. This particularly popular dish is made from a cylindrical-shaped dough of flour, water and salt filled with bean sprouts, carrots, Chinese cabbage, shiitake, meat is optional, and/or even some sweet ingredient. Some are made according to personal taste. They are then fried, this step gives their golden yellow color, which is very important for the tradition, since the lucky saying for eating spring rolls refers to their color: 黄金万两 (hwung jin wan lyang) ” A ton of gold” because fried spring rolls look like gold bars. They are eaten on the first day of the year, the first day of spring 立春 (li chūn), which is considered the Chinese Lunar New Year. During the Jin Dynasty (about 265-420), people arranged spring rolls and vegetables together on a plate, this was known as Spring Platter 春 盘 (chūn pán). The emperors rewarded the best Spring Platters. The rolls symbolize a wish for wealth and abundance, a wish for prosperity in the year to come.
An old proverb says that it is time to ferment the dough on the 28th day of the 12th month of the Chinese lunar year. In the past, the yeast dough quickly deteriorated, so it would take up to two days before the spring festival to ferment the dough. This custom is rare now due to the availability of baking powder, refrigerators, and bakeries. Thereafter, each family was devoted to preparing food for the spring festival, especially the steamed buns 蒸 包子 (Zhēng bāozi). The steamed buns, from old Pekingese, were stuffed with red beans and red date paste. As it was considered unfortunate to steam buns and cook them on the 1st to 5th day of the 1st month of the Chinese lunar year, people had to prepare the steamed buns for the whole week. Steamed buns were usually decorated with red dots, which added shine.
Sweet Glutinous Rice Balls
Sweet rice balls 汤圆 (Tāngyuán – tung-ywen) are one of the main foods for the Chinese Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Chinese New Year period. However, in southern China, people eat them during the Spring Festival. Their pronunciation and their round shape are associated with meeting and being together. That’s why they are on the tables during the New Year celebrations. The balls can be eaten plain, or with the most common fillings such as sesame, red bean paste, and peanut paste, but you can also choose with other creative fillings such as pumpkin and meat. These small chewy rice balls are almost always served in a broth, typically cooked in a sweet, syrupy soup that is sometimes also flavored with ginger. It is believed that eating this dish for the lantern festival, will bring families happiness, luck, and harmony in the new year. Sweet soup balls 汤圆 (tāng yuán) remind people of the importance of getting together often when the Spring Festival draws to a close.团团 圆圆 (Tuántuán yuányuán – twann-twann ywen-ywen): Happy reunion!
Vegetable dishes for the Lunar New Year
Traditionally, the spring festival overlaps with the time to plant new seeds, but it is also an opportunity to consume and finish all the vegetables 蔬菜 stored and preserved in the winter. Mixed vegetable dishes can be another form of good luck, in addition to the fact that these vegetables can be included in rice and pasta dishes, broths, soups, or as fillings. Furthermore, vegetables are considered a symbol of prosperity, both traditional Chinese and Western medicine recommend abundant daily portions of vegetables since they are excellent for human body health. During New Year, green leafy vegetables should usually be cooked or served intact and whole to increase luck and symbolize a long life for parents. A dish considered to be a good omen is the 田园 素 小炒 (tián yuán sù xiǎo chǎo) Chinese style stir-fried vegetables, also known as “countryside vegetarian stir fry” where they can be mushrooms, jujubes, and Chinese cabbage accompanied by other local vegetables.
The Lunar New Year meal almost always includes dayu, literally “big fish”. The choice of fish for the feast is based on auspicious homophonic. In Chinese, the word fish 鱼 (yú) sounds like surplus or abundance 余 (yú). Chinese people always like to have a surplus at the end of the year, because they think that if they can manage to save something at the end of the year, then they can do more in the next year. So for this reason a big fish is chosen, possibly whole. A whole fish also represents a harmonious and whole family. A whole fish gives a sumptuous appearance to the dining table, but it is also the symbol of abundance. The way the families prepare the fish doesn’t matter, what really matters is making sure the head and fins, and tail are intact when served as this represents a “whole” and good start and end for the year to come. There are also some rules that some families respect: the head should be positioned towards special or elderly guests, who are respected. In some areas of China, diners can enjoy fish only after the person to whom the fish’s head is turned first has eaten, for this reason, the fish should not be moved or turned upside down otherwise, it is believed that there will be scarcity rather than abundance. In other parts o China, however, the head and tail of the fish can only be eaten at the beginning of the year. The two people to whom the fish’s head and tail are aimed should drink together, as this is believed to have a lucky meaning. Fish should be the last dish left with some residue. Some people choose catfish, specifically because in the Chinese language “catfish” sounds 鲶 鱼 (niányú / nyen-yoo) just like 年 余 (nián yú) which means “surplus of the year”. Also appreciated are the Crucian Carp 鲫鱼 (jìyú / jee-yoo) whose name sounds like the Chinese word 吉 (jí / jee) “good luck”, and the Chinese Mud Carp 鲤鱼 (lǐyú / lee-yoo) whose pronunciation is like the word used for gifts 礼 (lǐ / lee). If a family eats just one fish, they start to eat the top of the fish on New Year’s Eve and the rest on the first day of the new year. During the celebrations, someone could pronounce the phrase 有 头 有 尾 (yǒu tóu yǒu wěi) or “Having both a head and a tail”. This wish underlines the desire to “finish everything started in the hope of obtaining positive results”. Furthermore, according to tradition, leaving some parts of the fish intact represents the “surpluses” of the future year. Sometimes on the festive table, is possible to find two fish served together, to emphasize the abundance. In this case, one fish is eaten on New Year’s Eve and the other on the first day of the lunar new year, with the desire for a surplus year after year. While eating fish people wish for families and friends 年年 有余 (Niánnián yǒu yú), “May you have plenty year after year”! “I wish you more than necessary”! During the festivities, there may also be cakes or bread products in the shape of fish, or fish swimming on the posters and dangling from the charms, to reinforce the beneficial meaning of the fish.
Whole steamed chicken
A whole chicken 蒸鸡 (zhēng jī) is a very significant dish of Spring Festival celebrations and for Chinese culture. This dish is a symbol of family unity since it’s adequate and able to feed an entire family. It represents reunion and rebirth, prosperity, loneliness, and harmony. To reinforce this auspicious meaning, all parts are eaten from head to claw. After cooking, the chicken is offered to the ancestors, praying and asking for their blessing and protection. Chicken soup is one of the first meals of the new year and expresses a wish for peace. Those who work in the family are also given paws, called “phoenix claws”, called “phoenix claws” 凤爪 (fèng zhuǎ). This symbolizes the claw that captures wealth. Chicken legs are a very popular part eaten in China all the year. The wings, on the other hand, are a wish for an improvement, while the bones, from which the marrow is sucked in to eat it, represent exceptional results.
Legend of some of the vegetables and roots that take on symbolic values:
- Algae 藻类 (Zǎolèi): Wealth and luck.
- Bamboo shoots 竹笋 (Zhúsǔn): represent longevity and continue upward.
- Cabbage 白菜: (Bái cài) sounds like 百 财 (băi cái) or a hundred kinds of luck.
- Carrots 胡萝卜 (Húluóbo): They are for good luck.
- French fries 炸薯条 (Zhà shǔ tiáo): for a golden future.
- Green radish 绿 萝卜 (Lǜ luóbo): Symbolizes youth.
- Leek/chives 韭 (Jiǔ): Leek has a shape that looks similar to the character 久, which means long and eternal.
- Osmanthus flower petals 桂花 花瓣 (Guìhuā huābàn): in Chinese osmanthus 桂 (guì) is a homophone of 贵, which means noble and precious.
- Poria Mushrooms 茯苓 (Fú líng): This mushroom for a play on words brings to mind 福禄 (fú lù), or blessings and luck.
White radish 白 萝卜 (Bái luóbo): Wishes progress.
Legends of some ingredients present in dishes and served on Chinese tables during the Lunar New Year festival that have a certain symbolism:
- Duck 鸭肉 (Yā ròu): Loyalty.
- Eggs 鸡蛋 (Jīdàn): The albumen and the yolk represent gold and silver and also their simple gift and gift to friends and neighbors, wishes a big and healthy family.
- Lime 酸橙 (Suān chéng): Wealth and security.
- Lobster 龙虾 (Lóngxiā): Infinite money coming.
- Lotus seeds 莲子 (Liánzǐ): Blessing for having many children and healthy family.
- Oil 油 (Yóu): to whirl your luck and to navigate smoothly all year round. Dried oysters 干 蚝 (Gàn háo): direct prosperity towards good business.
- Peanuts 花生 (Huāshēng): Symbolize silver, gold and the wishes of a long life.
- Pepper and cinnamon 胡椒 (Hújiāo), 肉桂 (Ròuguì): to grant wishes.
- Plum sauce 梅子 酱 (Méi zǐ jiàng): used to flavor and therefore to attract treasures.
- Roast pork 烤 猪肉 (Kǎo zhūròu): Peace.
- Sesame seeds 芝麻 籽 (Zhīma zǐ): Prosperity in business.
- Shrimp 小虾 (Xiǎo xiā): the sound is reminiscent of “Ha Ha” so they are associated with vivacity, happiness, luck, and wealth.
- Tofu 豆腐 (Dòufu): Happiness and luck for the whole family.
Topics: Chinese new year food, Chinese new year dishes Cantonese, what to prepare for Chinese new year 2023
CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Ciao! My name is Dominique. I’m Italian and I’m proud to be a mix. My father was an Italian chemical engineer and high school teacher, with Greek and Polish heritage. My mother is Haitian, she was high school language teacher, with Dominican, Spanish, French, Portuguese, African and Native American heritage. Being a mix makes me appreciate to want to understand different cultures and lifestyles. I grew up in Italy, lived few years in Haiti, travel around main European capitals, lived seven years in China, six in Spain and UK. Traveling makes me feel that we can learn something from every situation in every part of the world.