I somehow wish I could convey to you how much I love Chinese New Year. Words on a screen can’t do it; they can’t help you understand the warm magic of our new year celebration, reigned in every year by a host of family, games, drink, lights, and most of all – food. It’s the food that takes you there. This is a celebration at the heart of what we as humans hope for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world in the year ahead: prosperity, good fortune, laughter, and good good eating.
This is a 16 day festival, but the New Year’s Eve dinner is believed to be one of the most important meals of the year. Big families and friends of many generations sit together around tables, enjoying food and each other’s company. We celebrate wholeness at this meal: it’s really the meal’s theme. We serve traditional foods that symbolize luck, health and good fortune during the whole 16-day festival season, especially New Year’s Eve, and these are believed to bring good luck for the coming year. It’s also important to understand that not only do the dishes themselves matter, but the preparation and the methods of both serving and eating are important parts of the entire festival.
Chinese people believe that a good start to the year will lead to a lucky year. Traditionally, Chinese celebrated the start of a new year of farm work, and wished for a good harvest (when most were farmers). This has evolved to celebrating the start of a new business year and wishing for wealth, health and prosperity. As you plan your Chinese New Year menus, the most common foods at the table include meatballs, dumplings, fish, noodles and glutinous rice cake (niangao). My family also has a few additions, such as a whole duck and Eight Treasure Rice Pudding. Again, wholeness is the theme!
I’m sharing here photos and recipes from my own dinner table to help you get a feel for how this food lives and works in a real, lived Chinese New Year celebration. You’ll have had dumplings – most people have. You’ll have had Chinese noodles. These dishes are almost too familiar – especially their Westernized versions. What I want to share with you is Chinese food from a Chinese home, made for Chinese New Year, because it is the food, and the families that make this food as they have done for thousands of years, that are at the heart of what Chinese New Year is about.
Chinese Dumplings 饺子 Jiǎozi
With a history of more than 1,800 years, dumplings are a classic Chinese food, and a traditional dish eaten on Chinese New Year’s Eve,
Chinese dumplings can be made to look like Chinese silver ingots (which are not bars, but boat-shaped, oval, and turned up at the two ends). There are some that believe the more dumplings you eat during the New Year celebrations, the wealthier you will be in the New Year. Dumplings are generally made with minced meat and finely-chopped vegetables wrapped in a thin and elastic dough skin. Popular fillings are minced pork, diced shrimp, fish, ground chicken, beef, and vegetables. Normally cooked either by boiling, steaming or frying.
黄金万两 (hwung-jin wan-lyang/): ‘A ton of gold’ — a wish for prosperity.
Meatballs 肉丸 ròu wán:
Traditionally, most families have what are known as “lion’s head” meatballs. In my family, we have had a recipe handed down for generations called “sticky rice meatballs” which also incorporates the “sticky rice” which my grandmother interpreted as a whole family sticking together.
Long Noodles长面条 Zhǎng miàntiáo
“You keep those long, because you want to have symbolic noodles — long noodles for longevity” They are longer than normal noodles and uncut, either fried and served on a plate, or boiled and served in a bowl with their broth.
Fish 鱼 Yú /yoo/
In Chinese, “fish” sounds like ‘surplus’. Chinese people always like to have a surplus at the end of the year, because they think if they have managed to save something at the end of the year, then they can make more in the next year.
Fish can be cooked in various ways such as frying, steaming, and braising. The most common Chinese fish dish is pan fried then steamed with ginger, scallions and soy sauce. Whatever fish dish it may be it must be a whole fish, and never flipped while eating!
How and when a Fish Is Eaten Matters a Lot
The fish should be the last dish left with some left over, and should not be eaten traditionally until the end of the 10-15 day New year festival, which symbolizes the year will start and finish with surplus. Do not flip the fish while eating.
Niángāo — (Glutinous Rice Cake) 年糕 (/nyen-gaoww/)
In Chinese, niangao sounds like it means “reaching higher every year”‘. In Chinese people’s minds, this means the higher you are the more prosperous you are in life. The main ingredients of niangao are sticky rice, sugar, red beans, and Chinese red dates.
Good Fortune Fruit
Certain fruits are eaten during the Chinese New Year period, such as tangerines and oranges, and pomeloes. They are selected as they are particularly round and “golden” in color, symbolizing fullness and wealth, but more obviously for the lucky sound they bring when spoken.
Eating and displaying tangerines and oranges is believed to bring good luck and fortune due to their pronunciation, and even writing. The Chinese for orange (and tangerine) is 橙 (chéng /chnng/), which sounds the same as the Chinese for ‘success’ (成). One of the ways of writing tangerine (桔 jú /jyoo/) contains the Chinese character for luck (吉 jí /jee/).
Eight Treasure Rice Pudding 八宝 饭Bā bǎo fàn
This celebrated rice pudding, a sweet and sticky rice dish traditionally eaten on Chinese New Year and which features eight dried fruits and nuts. The number eight is a magic number for Chinese people. In Chinese the number eight sounds like another Chinese word “發”. 發 which is Chinese means wealth. So, eight is a lucky number. Also, the dessert is very colorful. Our family pours a shot of rum on top at the end and lights it on fire, for a beautiful finish to the dinner.