Most Americans consider the new year to have started on January 1. But for many Asians and Asian-Americans, that’s not the case. Lunar New Year, most commonly associated in the U.S. with Chinese New Year, begins on February 12, 2021 (which is the Year of the Ox in Chinese zodiac, BTW). Also called Spring Festival in most of mainland China, Lunar New Year starts on the night of the first new moon of the lunisolar calendar, which is a bit shorter than the 365-day solar year. The 16-day festival season is celebrated with lots of Chinese New Year food that’s prepared, served and eaten in symbolic ways.
It all begins with the reunion dinner, which is basically a big family feast where everyone gathers to spend time together and share their wishes for health, happiness and prosperity in the year ahead. It’s arguably the most popular festivity, with people (in pre-Covid times) traveling across the country to be with their families. In case you’re planning a small celebration within your household, here are a few traditional dishes enjoyed at Lunar New Year celebrations.
Whole fish (yú, 鱼) is often served steamed at the unity dinner (though it can also be boiled or braised), due to the Chinese belief that it will bring prosperity. It’s crucial that the fish be served with its head and tail to represent both a good beginning and end; in fact, half the fish is saved to eat the following day to ensure long-lasting future prosperity. When served, the head of the fish should face distinguished or elderly guests, who must eat the fish first before others at the table can. It’s also considered lucky for the people facing the head and tail to drink together during the meal. This recipe calls for steaming bream or snapper fish in a bamboo steamer, but Crucian carp, Chinese mud carp and Chinese catfish are three other traditional options.
Legend has it that the more dumplings (jiǎozi, 饺子) you eat during Spring Festival, the more money you can make in the new year. Challenge accepted. The Chinese word for them represents the exchange between the old and new year, as it’s a combination of the words for “exchange” and “midnight.” It’s thought that eating dumplings during Lunar New Year ushers in the new and banishes the old. Their shape (like that of wontons) is modeled off the Chinese silver ingot, a currency used in Imperial China. The dumplings symbolize wealth, so make sure they have plenty of pleats, as flat dumplings are believed to purport the opposite. When serving, arrange them in lines rather than a circle to represent moving forward. This recipe calls for frying the dumplings, but feel free to stick to tradition and steam them instead.
These handhelds (chūnjuǎn, 春卷), especially popular in Eastern China for Lunar New Year, symbolize wealth and are named spring rolls because they’re eaten during Spring Festival. A Cantonese dish, spring rolls are a type of dim sum typically stuffed with vegetables or meat and wrapped in thin dough wrappers. The rolls are then fried until golden brown. This inspired the lucky Chinese saying for “a ton of gold,” which is colloquially used as a wish for prosperity while eating spring rolls, since they look like gold bars. This recipe’s rolls are filled with ground pork, mushrooms, cabbage and bean sprouts.
While these are popular for China’s Lantern Festival at the end of Lunar New Year, they’re also super common during Spring Festival in South China. Due to their round, cohesive shape and the fact that they’re most often served at family gatherings, sweet rice balls (tāngyuán, 汤圆) have come to symbolize unity and family togetherness. Rice balls are basically chewy balls made of water and glutinous rice flour, served either in hot broth or syrup or deep-fried. They can be stuffed with savory or sweet fillings, but popular options include sesame paste, red bean paste, chopped peanuts or preserves.
If you’ve ever dug into a bowl of lo mein, you know how much slurping eating noodles can involve. Longevity noodles (cháng shòu miàn, 长寿面) take it to a whole other level. In Northern China, these noodles can be up to two feet long (!!!) and are eaten for happiness and a long life. Legend has it that the longer your noodle, the longer your life—just don’t bite it or break it while it’s cooking, or that signifies a life cut short. They can be served fried or boiled in broth, along with different meats and add-ins with different meanings. This alternative Sichuan-inspired recipe (which uses shirataki noodles in place of tough-to-find longevity noodles) includes ground pork, fresh ginger, bok choy and scallions.
Much like the whole fish, the whole chicken serves as a symbol of unity and family. Authentic steamed chicken (zhēng jī, 蒸鸡) is served whole—head and feet included—to further drive home the concept of reunion and rebirth. (FYI, the breadwinner in the family should eat the chicken feet, as they just might help them “grab” onto wealth.) When chicken is cooked during Spring Festival, it’s traditionally first offered to one’s ancestors for blessings and protection. Finding a whole bird can be tough, so we also love the idea of substituting a roast chicken. This Chinese citrus-roasted orange chicken, complete with ginger-citrus sauce, is brined in star anise, fresh ginger and Chinese red dates.
The Spring Festival is historically the time to finish all the vegetables left over from winter in order to plant new ones. Commonly called “countryside vegetarian stir-fry” (tián yuán sù xiǎo chǎo, 田园素小炒), this simple mix of produce often includes mushrooms (the poria variety are believed to bring good fortune), Chinese red dates (aka jujube) and Chinese cabbage, along with other symbolic ingredients like bamboo shoots, which represent longevity and upward momentum; seaweed for wealth, or leeks, which sound similar to the word for “long and everlasting” in Chinese. This Paleo Chinese cabbage stir-fry includes savoy cabbage, carrots, scallions and sesame oil.
Maybe you’ve had Korean jeongol or Vietnamese lẩu, but hot pot (huǒ guō, 火锅) was originally invented by the Chinese. It’s basically a bubbling pot of stock or broth served with raw meat, veggies and more that you cook yourself at the table. Needless to say, it’s super customizable. You choose the broth, ingredients and hot pot sauces for dipping—all you need to pull it off is a small burner and a pot (ideally, a split pot that can hold multiple types of liquid at once). A few must-haves are thin-sliced rib eye, pork belly or jowl, shrimp or fish, mushrooms, daikon and lotus root.
For a pay raise, promotion or general good luck in the new year, look no further than this rice cake treat (nián gāo, 年糕). Its name has the same pronunciation as the Chinese word for “tall” or “high,” hence its purpose being to improve the eater’s life. While there are countless variations across regions of China (it’s been around for thousands of years), the rice cakes eaten for Lunar New Year in the South are typically sweet. They’re primarily made from either sticky glutinous rice or sweet rice flour, but can also include chestnuts, jujube, lotus leaves or sesame seeds. Some regions of China fry the batter or fill the cakes with red bean paste or mashed jujube, while others steam the cakes with red beans and jujube instead.
Shrimp (xiā, 虾) and lobster are both revered as symbols of fortune and good luck, so they make a great addition to your Lunar New Year menu. The Cantonese word for shrimp sounds like laughter (“ha”), so it’s come to signify happiness over time. Feel free to serve them cut up in lettuce wraps, minced in dumplings or whole in this rendition of Chinese kung pao shrimp. It’s a 30-minute recipe starring whole, dry Chinese red chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, cashews and Sichuan chili oil.
Tangerine (chéng, 橙) is the most old-school good fortune fruit there is in Chinese tradition, but you’ll likely also see oranges, pomelos and other citrus fruit at the table. Its name sounds similar to the Chinese words for “luck” and “success,” so they’re often served at the end of a meal or given as gifts to relatives during visits; but during Chinese New Year, they’re everywhere. Their roundness and golden color also signify fullness and wealth. It’s believed that the more you eat during Lunar New Year, the more wealth they’ll bring, so you might want to start peeling…
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