While for Western city dwellers Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival and Lunar New Year, may simply be a good excuse to inhale copious amounts of fried noodles and spring rolls, for many Asians the eve of this festive period brings a feast of different traditional dishes to the table.
On the night before this 15-day celebration many Asian families around the world come together for a meal called 年夜饭 (Nián Yè Fàn).
While in many places around the world, coming together might not be possible, families will undoubtedly relish the chance to eat, drink and chat around a full table in 2023.
These unprecedented times aside, though, what’s special about the food served during Chinese New Year is its symbolic significance. Traditional Chinese New Year food tends to signify health, prosperity or luck. Here are some of my favourites dishes:
Discover these 5 Chinese New Year food specialities traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year
1. 饺子 Jiǎo zi (Dumplings)
In Northern China, dumplings are always all the rage! No matter what festival we’re celebrating, friends and families love to gather around and make dumplings from scratch.
How they’re made: Some family members are in charge of making the dough, which is made from wheat flour (gluten–free versions don’t work with these, I’m afraid!). Dumpling fillings differ widely from place to place, but personally, I love the ones with Chinese leaves, leeks and minced pork, with a homemade seasoning. But whatever the filling, they’re then served with vinegar or soy sauce – whichever you prefer!
What they symbolise: The type of dumplings we eat look like 元宝 yuán bǎo (an ancient Chinese currency), so eating them symbolises wealth.
An old saying goes that the more dumplings you eat on the eve of the Lunar New Year, the more money you’ll make the following year! Some families make dumplings containing something considered lucky, such as peanuts, or even coins!
Getting one of the lucky dumplings means fortune will come your way. So, you get to eat delicious dumplings and you get good fortune the following year… what more could anyone want?!
2. 鱼 Yú (A whole fish)
Yes! The whole fish, with the head and bones and all!
In Mandarin, the word for fish 鱼 (yú) sounds like the word for abundance or surplus 余 (yú). Chinese people always like to have some surplus at the end of the year, whether it be money or food.
This is because they think that if they’ve managed to save something by the end of the year, they’ll be able to make more over the following year.
How it’s made: It is very important that the fish is served whole, with the head and tail, and it’s usually either served steamed or red-braised. I love it both ways!
What it symbolises: The head symbolises a good start to the year, and the tail is said to avoid bad luck throughout the year.
3. 鸡 Jī (Whole chicken)
How it’s made: Families usually either steam, boil or braise the chicken in soy sauce. Personally, I love chicken simmered in soy sauce. Like the whole fish, the chicken must be served whole with the head and feet. Trust me, the collagen-rich meat from the feet is super tasty!
What it symbolises: Serving a whole chicken symbolises the family unit, prosperity and joy.
4. 汤圆 Tāng yuán (Rice balls)
There are a few Chinese desserts that make special appearances at Chinese New Year – one of them is 汤圆 tāng yuán (rice balls).
How they’re made: These balls of goodness are made by adding water to glutinous rice flour, which are then either cooked and served in boiling water with syrup, or, if you’re after a truly calorific sweet treat, deep-fried.
What they symbolise: The round shape of the balls symbolises togetherness, as you normally eat 汤圆 tāng yuán with your family.
5. 年糕 Nián gāo (Rice cake)
Yup, it’s another Chinese New Year dessert – the period is truly the time for a sugar overload! It’s a type of glutinous rice cake called 年糕 nián gāo.
How it’s made: The rice cake is sweet and made from rice flour and sugar. Some variations have sesame seeds, red beans, or nuts in them. We don’t usually make them at home – we tend to cheat and buy them at the supermarket!
What it symbolises: 年 nián means “year”, and 糕 gāo sounds like 高 gāo meaning “tall” or “high”. Eating rice cake at the beginning of the year symbolises achieving new heights, or goals in the coming year (年年高升 niánnián gāoshēng).
Stomach rumbling? Mine too.
Why not go out and find one of these five traditional and delicious Chinese New Year treats?
Go on: I know you want to…
And on that rather tempting note, the only thing left to do is wish you a Happy New Year! May your Chinese New Year celebrations be full of food, fun and, most importantly, luck!
新年快乐 Xīn nián kuài lè – Happy New Year!
Feeling inspired by this post?
Keep learning new things every day with Busuu, the language-learning app. Try our Chinese course – or one of our other 11 language courses – for free today.
We think you might also like…