Lunar New Year is around the corner (YAY!) and even though this year’s celebrations may be different because of the COVID-19 pandemic (sigh), some traditions will stay the same—especially when it comes to food.
If you didn’t know, Eastern cultures celebrate the New Year on February 12 as part of an annual 15-day festival, following the cycle of the full moon. Rooted in Chinese folklore, the celebrations are full of unique traditions that are still practiced by millions around the world today. Like all New Years, the lunar calendar is meant to sweep out the past and bring in new luck. Festivities include fireworks, parades, red envelopes, and, of course, food.
Like all parts of the Chinese New Year celebration, the dishes are rooted in symbolism and history, says Natalie Keng, founder and owner of Chinese Southern Belle, multicultural marketing consultant, and Chinese food expert. “In China, and in many other cultures, the availability, abundance, and enjoyment of food is the ultimate sign of well-being, prosperity, even affection,” she says. “Lunar New Year is celebrated with many symbolic ‘lucky foods’ to kick off the year to come. New Year’s Eve dinner is the most important family gathering of the year, signifying unity and harmony.”
The fortuitous symbolism of these foods is often connected to the shape or color of the dish, specifically to how the character sounds when spoken in Chinese: a homonym to lucky-sounding words. Pretty cool, right?
Here, nine (wildly delicious) plates commonly eaten during the celebration of the Chinese New Year.
Arguably the main attraction for Lunar New Year, lucky dumplings are exactly what they sound like: potstickers meant to represent prosperity, wealth, and good luck.
As the name suggests, longevity noodles are meant to represent a long life. As the new year begins, it’s a culinary blessing for everyone who eats the dish.
Whole Roast Meats
Different meats have different meanings in Chinese culture. Chicken, for example, represents wealth, and people eat both the head and the feet. Traditionally, Lunar New Year celebrations will have some sort of whole roast meat.
Long Leafy Greens or Long String Beans
Growth plays a big role in the celebration of Chinese New Year. Long string beans, or any long leafy greens, are meant to symbolize the sprout of good luck and longevity.
A beloved dessert, also known as nian gao, represents progress, advancement, and growth. The simple dish is made of sugar, water, and rice flour—easy and for good fortune.
In Chinese, “fish” is pronounced like “surplus.” Steamed fish is meant to be the last dish left to symbolize an abundance of good omens.
Oranges and Tangerines
Chinese superstitions state that oranges are a popular symbol of good luck, whereas tangerines signify an influx of good wealth. That’s a solid combo, TBH.
Given how Lunar New Year revolves around the moon cycle (hence the “lunar”), it’s very important for the moon to be represented in the cuisine. Moon cakes are a dessert pastry filled with red bean or lotus seed paste.
Sweet Rice Balls
A traditional Chinese dessert, sweet rice balls (tangyuan) can be filled with red bean, peanut, or taro. They are usually served as a watery dish but can be deep-fried.
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