Hungry History

Symbolic Foods Of Chinese New Year

By Stephanie Butler
iStockphotos.com

iStockphotos.com

The Year of the Horse is almost upon us! Chinese New Year festivities begin this weekend, and preparations are underway from Shanghai to San Francisco. For many Chinese, this holiday is all about the food. From potstickers to noodles to citrus fruit, the foods eaten hold meaning and significance for the year ahead. This week, we’ll take a look at the symbols behind some delicious Chinese New Year foods.

The foods enjoyed during New Year are similar to those consumed during the rest of the year, but with a special emphasis on bringing luck in the coming year. Potstickers and dumplings, for instance, are eaten across China every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But New Year potstickers are special, shaped to resemble gold and silver ingots to bring wealth in the year ahead. Peanuts are said to bring long life, so during New Year celebrations some cooks will add peanuts to potsticker filling. And the shape of spring rolls already resembles gold bars, so more of these are eaten during New Year than any other time.

Noodles have a long history in Chinese culture: the world’s oldest known noodles were found in China, not Italy, and they date from over 4,000 years ago. But noodles at New Year are to be made as long as possible, in order to ensure a long life. In much of China, leaves also signify longevity. During New Year, families enjoy leafy greens like bok choy and mustard, served whole to wish long lives to parents. Citrus fruits hold a place of honor on the New Year table, since they bring wealth, luck and status. This is because the Mandarin words for many types of citrus sound similar to these prosperous words: gold and orange sound alike, as do tangerine and luck. A pomelo is a close ancestor to the grapefruit that we don’t see much in America, but is enjoyed during Chinese New Year because the Cantonese word for it sounds the same as the words for prosperity and status.

Wholeness is an important concept during Chinese New Year. Not only does it mean a good beginning and end to the year, it signifies completion in work and life. Many foods are cooked and served whole at New Years–fish, chicken, duck and crab. Even citrus fruits are presented with the leaves and stems still on them, to ensure wholeness and balance. And we can’t forget the sweets, which hold a special place on the New Year table. Desserts promise a sweet life in the new year. Sticky rice cakes are filled with peanuts and sesame seeds, two foods that bring luck. And the many layers in flaky pastries like egg custard tarts symbolize rising abundance in the year to come, while their round shape brings family reunion. Candied nuts and seeds celebrate fertility, and sugared lotus root brings luck as well as beauty to candy boxes throughout the country.

Categories: China, Chinese New Year