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Culture Guide

Five foodie facts about Chinese New Year

26 January 2022

Chinese-New-Year 1

Chinese New Year, a time for family, friends and food.

Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year, is a 15-day celebration where friends and family gather to celebrate the beginning of spring. Filled with rich traditions, rituals and delicious food, this festival is a time to honour the past and welcome good fortune, luck and happiness for the future. Lanterns are hung, traditions observed, and doors open to all.

New Year’s Eve holds particular significance with 年夜饭 / Nián yèfàn, or the Reunion Dinner on the first day. Best spent with loved ones, this day is all about exquisite food and feasting, with tables adorned with delicious spreads. Many of the dishes have meaning or symbolism, and preparation and rituals can differ from region to region. In places like Hong Kong, New Year’s Day is a time to eat only vegetarian dishes to not only denote a fresh start, but because on this day it’s seen as taboo to take a life and eat meat, and in areas by the coast, the dinners are even more flamboyant and diverse. 

As we usher in the year of the Tiger this year, let’s look at some of the delicious food eaten at Chinese New Year.

Red everywhere for Chinese New Year

Red is a highly esteemed colour in Chinese culture denoting prosperity, happiness and fertility. So, when it comes to Chinese New Year you’ll find this vibrant hue everywhere from fireworks to decorations, clothing to tasty dishes. Jujubes are sweet Chinese red dates and will often grace the celebration table during dessert in steamed sticky rice cakes. 

In Central China, red is brought into chicken recipes and steamed fish dishes with hot chilli peppers generously sprinkled on top for luck (and heat).

Fish feasts and ceremonies

During Chinese New Year celebrations, you’ll always find fish on the table. In Chinese, the word for fish ‘yu’, also means ‘surplus’ which families welcome for the future. There are many rituals surrounding fish – the head must be placed towards family elders or distinguished guests as a sign of respect and after one side is eaten, it shouldn’t be turned over as that’s unlucky. 

Fish customs change from region to region too. In Southern China, some families eat just the middle part of the fish at the Reunion Dinner, as leaving the head and tail to the next day symbolises completeness. This happens in Eastern China too, but to promote a good year from start to finish.

Longevity noodles

On special occasions in China, you’ll often find noodles on the table, and longevity noodles are a staple for Chinese New Year’s Day. If you see a bowl of noodles on the table, you might find that it is one single and exceptionally long noodle! These elongated noodles are eaten in one continuous slurp from start to finish in the hope that everything will go smoothly in the coming year and promote long life – but if it’s bitten, the wish will be broken. 

Chinese New Year gifts

When families gather for Chinese New Year, they bring gifts aplenty. Oranges and tangerines are exchanged during the celebrations as they are believed to bring about good fortune, luck and fertility if the leaves and stem are still attached. It’s tradition to offer them to a loved one with both hands, but don’t be offended if they are refused at first as it’s polite to do so, but with a few attempts, they’ll be gratefully accepted.

Red envelopes called hóngbāo are also given at Chinese New Year. Filled with money, they are often given to children and elderly relatives – although they must never be opened in front of the giver. There will never be an amount with the number four, as in Chinese the word is pronounced in a similar way to ‘death’. The number eight is a different story as it’s a lucky number believed to bring about prosperity and good luck.

Rice rituals at Chinese New Year

Rice is a staple at any time of year, but at Chinese New Year it has an even higher distinction. Nian Gao are traditional rice cakes made from glutinous rice flour, wheat flour, golden slab sugar, coconut cream, vegetable oil and water and are popular in Southern China – they can even be decorated with a red date on top or pan-fried with eggs. When these delectable cakes are eaten, they are accompanied by the phrase 年年高 / niánnián gāo /nyen-nyen gaoww meaning ‘getting higher year-after-year by year’ which welcomes life improvement and getting a promotion each year. 

In some of the Northern parts of China such as the Beijing region, Laba Congee is also found on the table. Made from rice, peanuts, dried fruit, beans, lotus seeds, nuts and sugar, it symbolises the bounty of the past year’s harvest.

On the fifteenth and final day of the celebrations known as the Lantern Festival, sweet rice balls are served. These can be filled with anything from red bean paste to peanuts and their plump round shape signifies reunion and being together.

Friends and family uniting around fantastic food is a wonderful way to celebrate Chinese New Year and if you’re celebrating this year, we wish you all the luck and prosperity for the coming year of the tiger. Enjoy!