The Chinese New Year takes playing with food to a whole new level, and
is the name of the game. Sound—namely homophones, words that sound alike but have different meanings—determines many of the ritual foods that make the Chinese feast, not taste.
For example: "fish" (yu ?), also sounds like "surplus" (yu ?) in Cantonese and Mandarin. Eating fish at the start of the year therefore symbolizes abundance to come.
"This kind of wordplay exists in other languages, but as far as I’m aware, not to the extent of Chinese," says Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford University professor and author of
. "The Chinese have this pattern not just in food, but in other customs, and there is also a long history of puns in Chinese art."
Why so many puns? The reason may partly lie in the language itself—Chinese is a tonal language with many monosyllabic words, especially the Cantonese dialect.
"The reason it is so easy to pun in Chinese languages is that there are so few syllables available," writes Victor Mair, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, in an email to Yahoo. "Consequently, people have developed a natural affinity for punning and become very good at. It is part of the culture."
Despite the age-old tradition, not everyone's a fan: In fact,
Given how entrenched the practice is in New Year celebrations, though, they may have to eat their words. Click through the slideshow for 10 traditional Lunar New Year's eats that taste as good as they sound.