The Importance of Chinese New Year Food Traditions
Even the number of dishes on the table matters for this holiday.
It always starts with food. Every Chinese New Year, the first thing I would see when I woke up was an orange and a hongbāo (red envelope) filled with money resting beside my bed. My mom would strategically place them on my side table the night before while I was sleeping. It’s believed that oranges bring good luck and good fortune and are a symbol of happiness and abundance. I always thought that waking up with these positive affirmations (and a little extra cash) was a great way to celebrate the new year.
Along with oranges, my parents would leave us with other goodies too — like almond cookies, moon cakes, Jin Jin Lychee Coconut Jelly Cups, White Rabbit candies and strawberry flavored Red Lucky Candy. I remember bringing these treats into school with me and showing them off to all my friends who didn’t celebrate the holiday. They loved the intricate designs on the moon cakes and were fascinated by the White Rabbit candy, especially because you can eat the translucent sheet of rice paper that it comes wrapped in. In fact, these treats were one of the main reasons why my best friend and I started doing yearly Chinese New Year presentations in class: to show and teach our culture. We would go through the history, the traditions and of course all the yummy foods that come with it. Our classmates would perk up when we started passing out our favorite Chinese New Year snacks and that made me feel even more proud that I was able to share a part of my heritage through food.
Later that day, Chinese New Year dinner would be a big meal — where our whole family would come together and eat in my grandparent’s apartment in Flushing, NY. My grandma insisted we had to eat all together at one table (even the kids) so, we would cram into their living room area around their small square table. My grandma would then bring out a large round tabletop that she stored under her bed and place it on top of the square one so that it fit everyone. I remember how we were never allowed to rest our elbows on the table — not because it was rude but because it would upset the balance and send the food flying everywhere!
During dinner, my grandparents would stress the importance of the number of dishes at the table. If we had 7, they would bring an extra plate to make it 8. If we had 11, they would bump it up to 12. The reasoning behind this? Good things supposedly come in pairs so why risk your luck by setting your table with an odd number of dishes?
Speaking of dishes, the ones that really stick out to me are foods I don’t eat daily, the ones I crave because I don’t get to eat all the time. It’s important to have a whole chicken on the table like this Bai Gie Ji recipe. It signifies a sense of wholeness and prosperity within the family. A fish dish like this Steamed Striped Bass with Ginger and Scallions represents wealth and prosperity. Noodles are a staple for celebrations because they symbolize longevity in life. And my favorite, dumplings! My grandparents would always put a few extra ones on the kids’ plates because dumplings stand for wealth (because their shape resembles ancient gold coins).
Celebrating Chinese New Year on my own this year has made me think of these foods more than usual. The fact that every dish has intent and purpose is why keeping these traditions are so important. And that’s why I know one thing for sure: I’ll be placing an orange by my bedside, visiting the Chinese supermarket for my favorite treats and making sure I order an even amount of dishes from my favorite takeout spot — starting the new year surrounded by good food and even better traditions.