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5 Essential Foods to Eat During Chinese New Year

By Marjorie Perry

11.05.19

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Ring in the lunar new year with dishes that promote good fortune.

Illustrations by Emily Blevins

Ring in the lunar new year with dishes that promote good fortune.

Travelers might find these dishes on the table during the Spring Festival to bring good fortune for the year ahead.

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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 (which falls next on Friday, January 24, 2020). 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 five dishes families may serve at this meal, thought to bring good luck for the coming year.

Many dishes are served (like fish) because they have similar sounds to something families want for the coming year (like a surplus of wealth).

Fish

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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.

Dumplings during Chinese New Year are typically boiled (though they can be steamed or pan-fried).

Dumplings

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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.

Glutinous rice flour is a key ingredient in this traditional dessert.

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.

Longevity noodles are also popular at birthday celebrations to celebrate long life.

Long life noodles

As one might suspect, these are really, really ridiculously long noodles. The name chang shou mian literally means “longevity noodles.” Ideally diners should avoid severing the noodle while chewing, which is considered unlucky. Eating super-long strands of noodle is a challenge, though—proceed with caution.

Tang yuan can be filled or unfilled.

Rice balls

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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.

>>Next: Budapest’s 8 Essential Dishes (and Where to Try Them)

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