Lunar New Year, also known as Chinese New Year or Spring Festival, is a joyous celebration embraced by many Asian cultures, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and others. Established as a national holiday during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), it signals the start of the lunar calendar, welcoming spring, honoring ancestors and uniting families.
Many early Lunar New Year celebrations, rooted in ancient agricultural practices, involved edible offerings to deities and ancestors for a bountiful harvest. Today, as the holiday garners global participation from one-fifth of the world's population, food remains at the heart of the festivities, carrying rich symbolism with certain dishes signifying prosperity, health and abundance. Here's a look at some of the key foods central to Lunar New Year feasts.
1. Noodles: To Live Long and Prosper
Changshou Mian, known as "longevity noodles," symbolizes the wish for a long and healthy life. Noodles have been traced back more than 4,000 years in Chinese diets, but the tradition of consuming these long, uncut strands, sometimes over a foot in length, is thought to have originated during the Han Dynasty.
According to a popular legend, Emperor Wu associated a long face with a long life. And since "noodle" in Chinese sounds like the word "face," by his reasoning, eating long noodles would increase one's lifespan.
While likely more myth than fact, that tale has endured. Chen Yuanpeng, a professor and Chinese culinary specialist, tells CNN the story has woven itself into the fabric of the culture. "It has also become a part of the culture and history of longevity noodles, which has been documented for more than 1,000 years," Chen says.
2. Citrus Fruits: For Luck and Prosperity
In Lunar New Year traditions, revelers believe tangerines, oranges and pomelos bring good fortune. Their Mandarin names echo words with symbolic meanings: "jú" for oranges suggests "good luck" or "fortune," "chéng" for tangerine is akin to "success," and "youzi" for pomelos sounds similar to "have" or "abundance."
Historically, Time reports, parents from the Qing Dynasty would place oranges near their children's pillows to scare off monsters during the Lunar New Year. And beyond their linguistic connections, the citrus fruits' vibrant colors and round shapes represent vitality and wholeness.
Offering the fruits is seen as an act of good fortune for both hosts and guests, especially when delivered in pairs or multiples. Keep the leaves and stems intact, and they're even bigger symbols of longevity and fertility.
In Vietnamese culture, a five-fruit platter, or "mâm ngũ quả," is a centerpiece of the Lunar New Year table. Traditionally, the arrangement includes a combination of tropical fruits, such as oranges, pomelos, kumquats, persimmons and bananas, with each fruit chosen for its color and meaning to embody a prosperous year ahead.
3. Sweet Rice Balls for Unity
Yuanxiao or tangyuan, served in syrup, are sweet glutinous rice balls that hold a special significance during the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Lunar New Year celebrations. These round treats, symbolic of family unity, togetherness, and the hope for a sweet and harmonious year, date back more than a thousand years to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-906).
According to the BBC, the name yuanxiao was changed to tangyuan (meaning "round balls in soup") in the early 1900s when China President Yuan Shikai ordered it so because yuanxiao sounded like "remove Yuan."
"Remarkably, the ruler's thin-skinned request worked—sort of," the BBC reports. "While people in southern China now refer to the rice balls as tangyuan, those in northern and central China … still call them yuanxiao."
4. Golden Spring Rolls for Prosperity
Spring rolls are another popular dish during Lunar New Year celebrations; their golden color and cylindrical shape are reminiscent of gold bars and, thus, wealth. According to the Independent, "Hwung-Jin Wan-Lyang" is a lucky saying for eating the food in China, translating to "a ton of gold." And the ingredients used inside spring rolls, such as carrots, cabbage and mushrooms, represent growth, abundance and wealth, while vermicelli noodles symbolize longevity.
5. Fish: For Abundance
In Chinese culture, "yu," the word for fish, sounds like the word for surplus or abundance, and the presentation of a whole fish is a Lunar New Year staple.
"You cannot cut (the fish)," Julie Zhu, who works with the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center and was born in China, tells NBC. "Have the whole fish on the table."
But don't eat it all. Leaving some of the dish uneaten represents the hope for abundance to carry over into the new year.
6. Bánh Chưng: Connection Between Heaven and Earth
The traditional Vietnamese rice cake bánh chưng is steeped in legend and culture. Its square shape represents the connection between heaven and Earth, signifying unity and promising good luck and fruitful harvest.
The invention of bánh chưng dates back to the era of the Hùng kings (2879 to 258 B.C.). The cake's simple ingredients—glutinous rice, mung beans and pork, wrapped in banana leaves—carry deep symbolism.
"As people display the cake on altars and eat it during Tết, a time of hope and rebirth of nature, they remember their ancestors and express gratitude to Mother Nature and her bounty," the CBC writes.
7. Dumplings: Pockets of Prosperity
Jiaozi, the beloved Chinese dumplings, have been a staple of Lunar New Year festivities for centuries, with their origins also rooted in the Han dynasty. The legend goes that the ear-shaped pieces of dough wrapped around various fillings were invented by Zhang Zhongjing, a "Sage of Medicine," to cure the frostbitten ears of villagers.
Over time, the tradition of making and eating dumplings during the Lunar New Year spread across China and beyond. According to the BBC, jiaozi has a phonetic connection to the phrase "transition from old to new" and that the shape of the dumplings resembles ancient Chinese gold ingots, symbolizing wealth and good prosperity. At the same time, ingredients such as pork, shrimp, and veggies represent abundance.
8. Korean Rice Cake Soup: Adds a Year of Life
Consuming tteokguk, a Korean rice cake soup, during Lunar New Year celebrations is believed to add a year to one's age, symbolizing the passage of time and the promise of longevity. The round rice cakes represent coins and the hope for prosperity. Meanwhile, the dish's clear broth signifies purity and the opportunity for new beginnings.
Historically, according to "The Customs of Joseon," tteokguk played a role in ancestral rituals and eating "a white food to begin the new year holds the religious meaning of rebirth for all creatures in the world."
9. Sweet or Savory, Nian Gao: Lasting Prosperity
Nian Gao, or sticky rice cake, is often interpreted as "year high," and its name signifies the hope for growth and rising fortunes in the coming year. The cake's signature stickiness is a metaphor for a family's wish for lasting prosperity.
According to members of the Newham Chinese Association, the term "nian gao" translates to "getting higher, or taller, or better or more promising for the year to come."
The tradition of making nian gao dates back centuries, with its origins rooted in Chinese mythology as a sacred offering. "At the end of every year, folklore says, the Kitchen God makes his 'yearly report' to the Jade Emperor," according to China Highlights. "To prevent him from badmouthing their house, people offered nian gao, which would stick his mouth shut. Hence, nian gao is prepared for offering before Chinese New Year."
10. Leafy Greens: For Wealth
Spinach, lettuce, bok choy and other leafy greens symbolize prosperity, growth and good fortune–and their presence in Lunar New Year dishes is no coincidence. The Mandarin term for greens, "qing cai," echoes the word for wealth, making these vegetables popular in stir-fries, soups and hot pot meals.
During Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or Tết, celebrants often include leafy greens in spring rolls and salads. In Korean culture, they commonly use them in dishes such as Korean barbecue and bibimbap to represent a wish for a prosperous year ahead.