As you may already know, Chinese New Year is here. On February 15th we celebrate the end of the Year of the Rooster and February 16th marks the start of the Year of the Dog! Maybe you’ve seen Chinese New Year celebrations in different places around the world, but do you know anything about the symbolic food people eat on this day?
Well, on the eve of Chinese New Year many Asian families around the world gather together for a big meal called Nian Ye Fan. It’s all about eating, drinking and chatting! Lots of the dishes we eat symbolise health, prosperity or luck. I’m going to share some of my favourites with you!
In Northern China, everyone is a big fan of dumplings! No matter what festival, we all gather round and make dumplings from scratch. Some family members are in charge of making the dough, which is made from wheat flour (gluten free doesn’t work with these, I’m afraid!). Everyone else prepares the filling of Chinese leaves, leeks and minced pork with a homemade seasoning. The dumplings are then served with vinegar or soy sauce – whichever you prefer!
The type of dumplings we eat look like yuanbao (an ancient Chinese currency), so eating them symbolises wealth. An old saying goes that the more dumplings you eat on the eve of Chinese New Year, the more money you’ll make the following year! Some families make dumplings containing good-luck foods, 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 could be better?!
A whole fish
Yes! The whole fish with the head and bones! In Mandarin, the word for fish (yu) sounds like the word for abundance or surplus (yu). 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.
It is very important that the fish is served whole, with the head and tail, because the head symbolises a good start to the year, and the tail is said to avoid bad luck throughout the year. The whole fish (often either sea bream, sea bass or mandarin fish) is usually served steamed or red-braised. I love it both ways – it’s so delicious!
A whole chicken
The pronunciation of the word for chicken in Mandarin (ji) is quite similar to the word for family (jia). So, serving a whole chicken symbolises the family unit, prosperity and joy. 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!
Like in Germany and France, in China we also love pork knuckles or trotters. The knuckles symbolise fortune and wealth in both Mandarin and Cantonese because they represent hands, which are used to collect all your wealth! In Southern China and in some parts of the North, it is a very common dish for big festivals. Although the cooking styles may vary, most people cook the knuckles in soy sauce (because it tastes so good!)
We don’t normally have dessert. But Chinese New Year is an exception! On Chinese New Year we eat a type of rice cake called nian gao. Nian means year and gao means tall or high, which is a good thing in Chinese culture. So, eating rice cake at the beginning of the year symbolises achieving new heights or goals in the coming year. 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. Instead, we tend to buy them at the supermarket.
新年快乐 (xin nian kuai le) – Happy New Year!