All the Lunar New Year Dishes That Will Bring You the Best Luck
It wouldn't be the Spring Festival without these recipes — and the symbolism behind them.
Lunar New Year, also called Spring Festival, is one of the biggest celebrations in the world. Each year, there are millions who observe the holiday and participate in the largest annual mass human migration on Earth — as many, especially in China, travel to celebrate with their families. It's a time to come together, feast, give red envelopes, honor ancestors and wish for good fortune, prosperity, longevity and happiness in the coming year.
As a little girl growing up in Singapore, Lunar New Year was always an exciting and lively holiday. My sister and I would put on our qipaos and celebrate with friends and family, following Chinese traditions. We'd receive "hong baos," or red envelopes filled with small amounts of money, as well as oranges, an auspicious fruit typically handed out during the festival. Sound of firecrackers filled the air each night of the celebration, and spirits were high as everyone wished for the best in the new year.
My favorite part, of course, was the food. You might compare the Spring Festival feast to American Thanksgiving dinner — you have to go all out, eat all the traditional fare and can't stop eating until you're on the verge of passing out.
In the Chinese tradition, each dish has a special meaning — some dishes are believed to bring wealth, and others good luck or family togetherness. Here are a few symbolic dishes that always grace the dining table during the celebration, so you can ring in the Lunar New Year with the best luck!
Nian Gao (above)
One new year staple is nian gao — or rice cake. The character "gao" is pronounced the same way as the word "tall" or "high," symbolizing a wish for every year to be "higher" and better than the last (specifically when it comes to one's career or prosperity). The main ingredient is sticky glutinous rice or yellow rice, but flavors and additions vary throughout China depending on which region you're in. In the South, rice cake is usually on the savory side and can be sliced, fried, steamed and cooked in soup. While in the North, sweet rice cakes are more common and flavored with ingredients like jujubes, red bean and brown sugar.
Although noodles are a staple in everyday Chinese cuisine, during the new year and other celebrations like birthdays, chang shou mian (or longevity noodles), are a must-have on the dining table. These noodles are left uncut and are meant to be slurped all in one go, rather than chewed. The longer the noodle, the longer your life!
Steamed Whole Fish
Steamed whole fish is one of the most common traditional dishes eaten during the Lunar New Year. In Chinese, the word "fish" is pronounced "yu," which is the same pronunciation for the word "surplus," so eating fish symbolizes wealth and prosperity in the coming year. I still remember greeting everyone with the new year blessing "nian nian you yu," which translates to "may you have a surplus (of food and money) every year."
There are a few rules when eating fish to bring the most luck in the coming year: The fish is always served with the head and tail intact and the head should be placed towards the elders or distinguished guests at the dinner table. In certain regions of China, the head and tail are eaten the last. The phrase "you tou you wei" is an idiom meaning "where there's a start, there's a finish." The characters "tou" and "wei" translate to "head" and "tail," so leaving those parts as leftovers signifies a good start and end to the year.
One of my all-time favorite dishes is dumplings, no matter what time of the year it is. But at the new year, they're an especially big deal. Not only is making them a bonding activity for the whole family, but they also symbolize wealth and togetherness. Dumplings are shaped like ancient Chinese gold ingots, so it's said that the more dumplings you eat, the more wealth you will have in the new year (a tradition I seem to partake in way more often than just once a year).
The name itself is also symbolic — the phrase "jiao zi" has two other meanings. "Jiao zi" is the name of one of the first forms of paper money during the Song dynasty in the 11th century and it also refers to the hour before the new year, thus symbolizing the notion of "out with the old and in with the new." Sometimes, families put a coin in one of the dumplings and whoever gets it is believed to have extra good luck and wealth in the coming year.
Spring rolls may have been popularized in the West by places like Panda Express, but they're actually an important culinary part of the celebration for the Spring Festival, hence the name. Their shape is reminiscent of gold bars and therefore symbolizes wealth and prosperity. Typically filled with vegetables and meat, there are a couple of sweet variations as well, like red bean paste spring rolls from Shanghai and ice cream spring rolls that are a Taiwanese contemporary take on the dish.
Sweet Rice Balls
These sweet glutinous rice dumplings, known as tang yuan, are typically eaten during both the Lantern Festival and the Spring Festival. Their round shape symbolizes family togetherness and completeness. They are made with rice powder and can be filled with a variety of ingredients such as fruit, nuts, brown sugar and red bean (my favorite is black sesame).
I still vividly remember the first time I ever tasted this dish. I was living in Shanghai and on a school field trip for my Chinese class. We ate at a local restaurant right before Lunar New Year and my teacher ordered an array of classic Chinese dishes. I had never had tang yuan before, so I was a little wary but after one bite I was hooked. The dumpling was mildly sweet and once I bit through the chewy exterior, I was hit with an intense explosion of black sesame. The savory-sweet mix was a win for me and the memory remains as one of the few things I remember from my Chinese classes.