The Lunar New Year, also known for the Chinese New Year celebrations that culminate in the Spring Festival, is a time when families come together. Like any good special occasion, food is an integral part of Spring Festival celebrations. The dishes enjoyed vary widely by region, but one thing many have in common is the use of ingredients with auspicious-sounding names. Journey with us around China to discover six traditional Chinese New Year dishes to enjoy this Year of the Ox.
Fish is an essential dish on the Spring Festival table because the character for fish, 鱼 yú, is a homonym for the character for abundance or surplus, 余 yú. A typical greeting at this time of year is 年年有余 (nián nián yŏu yú), wishing abundance in the new year, and you’ll see plenty of restaurants doing plays on this in the names of fish dishes. In Jiangsu province, you might be served “squirrel fish,” a mandarin fish scored and deep-fried so that it puffs up and resembles the tail of a squirrel, while in Guangdong, fish is often simply steamed with ginger and spring onions.
In central China, especially in mountainous regions where fish is less available, rural families slaughter and cook whole chicken; the pronunciation of chicken, 鸡 jī, sounds like the word for luck, 吉 jí. The chicken should be served whole, symbolizing family reunion. Pork is also popular, usually cooked in rich stews or braises, perfect for the chilly weather most of China experiences at this time of year. Basically, as long as there is plenty of meat on the table, you have planned a successful Spring Festival dinner.
Some dishes are enjoyed at Spring Festival because of their symbolic shape. For example, spring rolls, most popular in southern China and among Chinese diaspora communities, are thought to resemble gold bars both in color and shape.
In northern China, nearly every winter festival is celebrated by eating dumplings, and Spring Festival is no exception. Like spring rolls, dumplings also represent wealth since their shape resembles imperial Chinese gold ingots or sycee.
Families stay up late on chuxi (aka New Year’s Eve) wrapping dumplings, especially in cities like Beijing and in the dongbei (northeastern China) region. Staying up late is a custom in itself, believed to bring health and long life, although you might not feel so healthy the morning after, depending on how much beer and baijiu is consumed!
Local produce naturally plays a key role in regional Spring Festival dishes. From the Yangtze river southwards, rice reigns supreme, transformed into everything from noodles to dumplings to rice cakes. For example, in Guangxi province, zongzi — parcels of glutinous rice stuffed with pork and mung beans and steamed in bamboo leaves — are a traditional Chinese New Year dish, despite being typically associated with Dragon Boat Festival in the rest of the country.
On one of our Spring Festival journeys this year, we’ll discover just how important rice is to the celebrations of many of China’s ethnic minorities as we explore the rice terraces tended by the Hani people in the Red River Valley in southern Yunnan. You’ll celebrate the arrival of the new lunar year with a Hani community, sampling traditional festive dishes like multicolored steamed glutinous rice.
Rice also plays a key role in one of the more popular gifts to give at Spring Festival, glutinous rice cakes or niángāo 年糕, which are related to wishes of increased prosperity in the year to come. There are many different sweet and savory versions of this dish to be found around China, and they often come stamped with auspicious Chinese characters or in the shape of lucky fish.
If you do find yourself short of a gift when visiting friends at this time of year, you can’t go wrong with some tangerines or mandarin oranges, a symbol of wealth and happiness. Try to buy them with the leaves still attached, which is considered particularly lucky.
Join us for a Dumpling Making Class!
Boiling up a plate of dumplings is a great way to feel like you are part of the Spring Festival celebrations wherever you are in the world, and they’re not too difficult to make for yourself, either. Join WildChina founder Mei Zhang in her kitchen for a LIVE dumpling making class!