For China’s 1.5 billion citizens and many Chinese communities around the world, the Spring Festival marks the beginning of the new year according to the traditional lunar calendar. Ever since I started dating (and later marrying) a local gemen’r (a “Beijing dude”), I’ve been thrown into the fray, too. The main event of Spring Festival is the family meal, held on New Year’s Eve. Whole families reunite in a scene that is repeated millions of times over across the country—sons and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, aunts and uncles, all coming together for this annual celebration.
In families that observe classical social mores, like mine in Beijing, the eldest family member takes his or her seat first. That elder should be given the best seat in the house, whether that is the comfiest chair or the best location. The eldest son traditionally serves others throughout the meal, and it’s quite a feast. Invariably there is too much food for the table, and dishes get stacked precariously on top of one another. The glass turntable is spun with precision to make sure the Jenga tower of food stays upright.
Traditions vary, but here are seven dishes that families may serve at this meal, thought to bring good luck for the coming year.
A whole fish should be on the table. The Mandarin word for “fish” is a homophone for the word “surplus.” When the fish arrives, guests will recite the Chinese expression “every year a surplus,” which sounds the same as “every year a fish.” It’s saying a wish aloud, a blessing for the year to come. My father-in-law Yulin likes to say the phrase and tap his teacup twice on the table, for added emphasis. The head of the fish should be pointed toward the head of the family, signaling deference and respect. Family members wait until this person (typically the grandfather) takes the first bite of fish before tucking in themselves.
Later in the meal, another guest can show his or her respect for the family’s elder member by picking out the best morsel, the fish’s cheek, and placing it in the elder’s rice bowl. As everyone eats, the tail and head should be kept intact, connected to the body of the fish. This represents the phrase and wish that “[all things] have a head and tail.” The expression indicates a desire that family members will achieve their goals and be disciplined in their work or studies in the coming year.
The next must-have is dumplings. There is a recurring joke that Chinese holidays are just occasions to overindulge in this beloved food. Besides being delicious, dumplings bear a striking resemblance to a kind of ancient Chinese currency. Piling up one’s plate with dumplings looks like amassing a small mound of gold ingots. Usually the dumplings are filled with a fragrant mixture of pork, cabbage, and spring onion. Within the last century, China struggled with hunger and famine; during some periods, eating meat could be a rare occurrence. Fat dumplings stuffed with meat symbolize wealth and abundance, so we can rest assured the tough times are past.
Oranges (and other citrus fruits)
Oranges, and other citrus fruits like tangerines and pomelos, are especially auspicious fruits to eat and to give to others around the Lunar New Year. The Chinese words for tangerines (ganju) and oranges (juzi) sound a lot like the words for luck and wealth, while their vibrant yellow and gold colors are associated with wealth and prosperity. Oranges are customarily gifted with the stems and leaves still intact—this represents fertility and longevity. Mandarin oranges and their long leaves are also a common home decoration around the New Year. An orange or two might serve as a centerpiece and small orange tree saplings are often purchased to brighten homes.
Sticky rice cakes
In ancient times, this dessert delicacy was only used as a ceremonial offering to ones’ ancestors and the gods. Over time the dish nian gao, or “New Year’s Cake,” made its way to the Spring Festival dinner table and now mere mortals can consume them. Unsurprisingly, there is another auspicious homophone here—the word “gao” in nian gao also sounds like “tall” or “high.” The dish represents a wish that each year will be more prosperous, healthy, and fruitful than the last.
A whole chicken
One of the most common offerings to grace the New Year table is a chicken—the Chinese word for chicken, ji, is a homonym for good luck. There is no one traditional way to prepare the Lunar New Year bird; it can be steamed, poached, braised, roasted, or smoked. However, what’s most important is that the chicken be served completely intact—feet and head included. The wholeness of the bird is meant to represent prosperity and the togetherness of the family unit. The feet of the chicken (a delicacy) are often served to the breadwinner of the family so that they’ll be able to obtain as much wealth as they can in the coming year. Chicken is also a popular dish to ceremoniously offer to ancestors who have passed before the Lunar New Year feast.
Long life noodles
Chang shou mian
As one might suspect, these are really, really ridiculously long noodles. The name chang shou mian literally means “longevity noodles.” Traditionally, the noodles are made from one piece of dough, which is rolled and stretched until it reaches the chef’s preferred length and thickness—wheat flour is usually used to make chang shou mian since rice flour is far too delicate for such an operation. Ideally diners should avoid severing the noodle while chewing, which is considered unlucky. In addition to New Years, longevity noodles are also commonly eaten to celebrate birthdays as well as births.
Glutinous rice balls
To close out the holiday period, families gather once more and dine on tang yuan, a translucent, sweet rice ball filled with sugared black sesame paste or smooth peanut butter. These chewy orbs are boiled in a pot of water with slices of ginger, adding a touch of heat to the dessert. I also like to sprinkle a little brown sugar on, to satisfy my American sweet tooth. The dish’s name, tang yuan, sounds like the Chinese word for “united” or “reunion.” Thus, the most important holiday of the year starts with a family meal and officially concludes with a celebration of family togetherness through sharing a dessert of tang yuan.
This story was originally published in November 2019, and was updated on January 13, 2022, by Mae Hamilton to include current information.