The hallmark of a great Lunar New Year is the feast of delicious food. Meals so satisfying that Malaysians would brave the hours of traffic congestions just so they can ‘balik kampung’ for a reunion dinner that’s prepared with love.
True to Chinese culture and tradition, the Lunar New Year is ladened with all kinds of symbolism and during this special occasion, it is exclusively communicated through food. Yes, almost all dishes on the reunion dinner signify some form of good luck and auspicious energy as it is believed that the food you eat on Chinese New Year will bring you all the wealth and prosperity for the year ahead.
For the unaware, here’s a list of all the top fortune foods you’ll find on the dinner table and the meanings behind them.
1. Dumplings or Jiao Zi
Simple and delicate on the outside, flavourful and juicy on the inside. Dumplings have been in existence for over two thousand years and they are an essential item for the celebrations of Chinese New Year.
Shaped like a silver ingot, which is an ancient Chinese currency that is shaped like a boat with the two ends curved up, dumplings are believed to signify wealth. Legend has it that the more you eat, the wealthier you will be.
However, not all dumplings are created equal. It is said that dumplings with Chinese sauerkraut are to be avoided because it implies a poor and unfortunate future. Instead, dumplings with cabbage and radish are consumed as the lightness of the vegetables signify one’s fair skin and gentle mood.
As an additional bonus, some traditions encourage inserting a white thread or a copper coin into random dumplings. The white thread is supposedly to represent longevity and is often served to the elderly while dumplings with the copper coin are given to the young money makers.
2. Fish or Yu
Usually eaten as the grand finale dish, steamed fish with ginger and scallion is a must-have at every reunion dinner, and for good reason as it represents an increase in prosperity.
In Mandarin pronunciation, fish or ‘yu’ sounds similar to ‘surplus’, and it is believed that if you have a surplus of wealth at the end of the year, you’ll be able to make more in the following year.
Some popular poultry includes the Crucian Carp or Ji Yu. ‘Ji’, in Mandarin, can also mean good luck, and thus eating crucian carp is thought to bring good luck for the following year.
Chinese Mud Carp or Li Yu is also another common fish used during Chinese New Year as ‘Li’ is defined as ‘gift’ in Mandarin. According to ancient beliefs, those who eat mud carp can expect the year ahead to be full of new offerings.
Catfish or Nian Yu, on the other hand, directly translates to mean ‘year surplus’, which echoes the original belief that eating fish will provide an amount of wealth for those who work hard in the new year.
3. Spring Rolls or Chun Juan
As Lunar New Year happens at the beginning of Spring, spring rolls are consumed as a way to mark a new season. However, back in ancient China, these deep-fried wraps were consumed during Spring because it was the only season that provided fresh vegetables needed for the fillings.
Regardless, spring rolls are an important delight on the dinner table, not only as a representation of a new year but also as a symbol for wealth.
Thanks to the deep-fried golden body of a spring roll, there comes much resemblance to a gold bar, which points to wealth and richness to those who consume it.
4. Noodles or Chang Shou Mien
The centre of every feast is the massive plate of noodles. Besides being the carb-filled dish, noodles are a symbol for longevity, thanks to its length. It is said that consuming the stringy noodles will award the eater a long life – which is something that is highly valued in Chinese culture.
As such, preparing Chang Shou Mien (directly translated to Long Life Noodles) has a special trick too. In order to preserve the meaning, store-bought noodles are generally longer than usual, and there cannot be any cutting or breaking of the noodles during the cooking process.
It is tradition to offer longevity noodles to the elders, and they must be consumed from beginning to end without any breakage or good luck would be considered broken.
5. Buddha’s Delight or Jai
Though not as popular as the other dishes on the list, the practice of eating a meat-free Buddha’s Delight is mostly done by more traditional and religious families. It is a Buddhist tradition that no animal should be killed on the first day of the Lunar New Year and that by consuming vegetables, the body is being purified of all the bad luck and energy.
The dish itself is loaded with meaning and significance. For starters, the stir-fry contains bamboo shoots that are often associated with wealth and new beginnings, cabbage with prosperity. The fried bean curd, due to its brownish colour and resemblance to ingots, is known for signifying gold and wealth while snow peas and carrots are said to bring about unity and good luck respectively.
6. Glutinous Rice Cake or Nian Gao
The brown sticky cakes are the stars of Chinese New Year, making their appearance an annual affair. In Mandarin, gao can be interpreted to mean ‘high’ or ‘height’. It is believed that eating glutinous rice cakes will help propel the person’s career, studies or life development to new heights. It is the same reason why the phrase 步步高升 (Bu Bu Gao Sheng), which means getting higher by each step, is commonly exchanged as a Chinese New Year greeting.
7. Glutinous Rice Balls or Tang Yuan
Though these delicious rice balls are available all year round in dessert shops, they are consumed exclusively during Chinese New Year and the Winter Solstice Festival.
The round-shaped balls are filled with bean paste or brown sugar and its roundness is associated with completeness and fullness in the family.
An apt significance considering how preparing Tang Yuan is usually a family affair, with cousins and relatives gathered around to roll these delicate rice balls. There’s a common greeting in Mandarin – 团团圆圆 (Tuan Tuan Yuan Yuan) – which is used to describe the homecoming reunions of large families.
8. Mandarin Orange or Kam
If there’s a fruit out there that perfectly encapsulates Chinese New Year, it would be the Mandarin Orange. Used as decoration items, as gifts, as trees that deck the halls, Mandarin Orange is without a doubt the iconic symbol of the celebration.
Kam, as it is often referred to, sounds similar to the Chinese word for ‘gold’, which points to more wealth and fortune in the year ahead. It is common practice to offer mandarin oranges when paying visits to relatives and friends, as a way of wishing them a year of riches and fortune.
‘Lucky’ Foods This Chinese New Year
So there you go, the auspicious foods of the Lunar New Year. Some traditions will have more foods with different meanings but generally, they all point to one of these three things – wealth, longevity and good luck.
If you want your year 2020 to be filled with good luck, stuff yourselves full with these lucky foods!