ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Chinese New Year Food Traditions

Updated on February 10, 2018
February 16, 2018 marks the start of the Year Of The Dog in the Chinese Lunar Calendar.
February 16, 2018 marks the start of the Year Of The Dog in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. | Source

"Gung Hei Fatt Choy " (Cantonese ) or "Gong Xi Fa Cai " (Mandarin), the traditional Chinese New Year greeting, means "May you have riches galore". But the Chinese don't stop at wishing for prosperity - they eat for it as well! 16 February 2018 marks the first day of the Year of the Dog, specifically the Earth Dog. This is the start of 15 days of eating and greeting, the period over which Chinese New Year is celebrated.

Chinese dialects are tonal languages. Many words have the same sound but take on different meanings when said in different tones. This form of "tonal punning" reaches an apotheosis during Chinese New Year. Festive fare at this is focused on ingredients and dishes which reference luck, prosperity and longevity.

"Nin Go": Sticky New Year pudding

Image:  design56 - Fotolia.com
Image: design56 - Fotolia.com

Preparing for the New Year

Preparations for Chinese New Year commence long before the day. The Kitchen God is given a send off (traditional Chinese families have an altar for this divinity in the kitchen) on the 24th of the 12th month of the Lunar calendar to make his report on the household to the Jade Emperor God.

Part of the send off offerings is a sweet, sticky pudding (nin go ) made from ground glutinous rice is another Chinese New Year specialty. There are two theories behind the inclusion of this particular offering. One is that it sweetens his words when he makes his report. The other is to glue his moth so that he is incapable of dobbing your family in for the year's misdemeanours.

The pudding left to mature and harden up in the period leading up to the New Year.  (It is impossible to cut or eat when fresh.)  Apart from the bribery aspect, this cake symbolises climbing the ladder of success or business growth for the year. "Nin " means year whilst the Chinese word for pudding, "go " also sounds like tall or high. Over the New Year period, slices of the hardened pudding are eaten either battered and fried (sometimes with a slice of yam sandwiched between two pieces of the pudding) or steamed and served with a sprinkling of freshly grated coconut.

A variety of Chinese air-dried "charcuterie" Image:  JAY - Fotolia.com
A variety of Chinese air-dried "charcuterie" Image: JAY - Fotolia.com

Family Celebrations

The days leading up the the New Year see a frenzy of preparations at home for the sumptuous feasts that will be had at home for the first few days. The festivities begins with a grand family reunion dinner on New Year's Eve, with everyone returning to the 'ancestral home' (usually the home of the oldest living generation) for this.

The various cured and air-dried pork sausages and belly strips, liver sausages, as well as pressed duck, collectively known as larp mei or waxed meats are a much loved feature on the domestic New Year tables. There's no wax involved in their preparation of this Chinese charcuterie; rather the term refers to their appearance. They are steamed and all the fats that exude in the process are carefully reserved to be mixed with steamed rice. Larp mei farn (savoury rice with waxed meats) will not do anything for your arteries but it is a total joy to eat: incredibly fragrant, rich and savoury!


Chinese New Year Gifts

Mandarins ("kum" - meaning gold) with red packets filled with money. Image:  Mau Horng - Fotolia.com
Mandarins ("kum" - meaning gold) with red packets filled with money. Image: Mau Horng - Fotolia.com
Kueh Kapek (also called Love Letters). Image: Lai Seet Ying|Shutterstock.com
Kueh Kapek (also called Love Letters). Image: Lai Seet Ying|Shutterstock.com
Bak Kwa (thin pressed slices of sweet barbecued pork) Image:  Mau Horng - Fotolia.com
Bak Kwa (thin pressed slices of sweet barbecued pork) Image: Mau Horng - Fotolia.com

Lunch on the second day of the New Year is deemed to be the "opening meal" (hoi leen farn ) of the year. Very similar foods to those served at the reunion dinner will be eaten, but always prepared fresh! "Second hand rose" doesn't cut it for launching the new year with a big bang!

Activities over the first few days revolve around visiting friends and relatives to "pai nin " (proffer new year greetings); often with gifts of red packets for children and symbolic food gifts such as: mandarins (called kum in Cantonese, which also means gold).

In Malaysia and Singapore, popular food gifts include pineapple tarts, kueh kapek (also known as love letters, these are delicate crisp wafers made with a coconut and egg batter), and bak kwa (thin pressed slices of sweet barbecued pork).

Dried black "hair moss" known as "fatt choi" meaning prosperity. Image:  Norman Chan - Fotolia.com
Dried black "hair moss" known as "fatt choi" meaning prosperity. Image: Norman Chan - Fotolia.com
Dried Oysters known as "ho see" meaning good business. Image:  ivylingpy - Fotolia.com
Dried Oysters known as "ho see" meaning good business. Image: ivylingpy - Fotolia.com

Good Business & Prosperity

One of the most important ingredients at this time is hair moss. Its Chinese name, fatt choi , also means prosperity. A greenish-black algae sold in dried form, it has no taste of its own but picks up the flavours of the sauce in which it is cooked. A traditional New Year specialty is Ho See Fatt Choi (braised dried oysters with hair moss) which means good business (ho see ) and prosperity (fatt choi ).

Religiousness does not preclude a desire for prosperity. Many lay Buddhists and Taoists who don't observe vegetarianism on a daily basis will do so on special religious or festival days. The first day (and sometimes second as well) of the New Year are one of these occasions. The vegetarian dish prepared for this period of meat abstinence, Lor Hon Chai , include ingredients such as hair moss, golden needles, lotus seed (which symbolises sons born every year: Chinese culture is strongly patriarchal) and lettuce or Chinese cabbage (for longevity).

Lettuce (sang choy ) represents liveliness (sang mang ). If you've seen the lion dance that many Chinese businesses arrange to be performed at their premises to usher in the New Year, you would have noticed that the finale of the performance involves the lion having to reach for a whole lettuce together with a red packet dangled at a fair height above the lion. The red packet (lei see or lucky money) contains the payment for the performance. When the lion finally grabs this elusive prize, it will "swallow" the red packet and proceed to rip the lettuce apart which it then tosses (or rather, "spits") over the cheering observers. Welcome any leaves that come your way!

Fish connotes surplus or profits. Image:  uckyo - Fotolia.com
Fish connotes surplus or profits. Image: uckyo - Fotolia.com
Prawns connote happiness. Image:  Norman Chan|Shutterstock.com
Prawns connote happiness. Image: Norman Chan|Shutterstock.com

Other essential symbolic foods

Fish and prawns are much in demand and in Asia, the prices of these escalate around New Year.

The Chinese word for fish, yu , also sounds like the Chinese word for surplus. The favoured fish is carp (lei yu ). Lei means interest or profit, reinforcing the prosperity concept.

Prawns (har ) have connotations of happiness (ha ha siew means laughter), with the extent of joy proportionate to the size of the prawns. Shrimps are definitely not on for this time of year!

Pork and chicken are the most common meats eaten by the Chinese all year round and are also used as offerings in religious rituals. Thus, they are also the meats eaten during the New Year. Roast suckling pig (or at the very least, crispy skin roast belly pork) is favoured for the festive feast. Known as chun chee (golden pig), its festive value lies in the auspicious golden red colour of the skin.

Raw fish salad ready to be tossed. Image:  Mau Horng - Fotolia.com
Raw fish salad ready to be tossed. Image: Mau Horng - Fotolia.com

The 7th Day: Every Man's Birthday

The seventh day of the New Year is Every Man's Birthday and yu sang (literally raw fish) is eaten on this day. This is a salad comprising tissue-thin slices of raw fish, shredded vegetables and crackers with a plum dressing. The name of the dish symbolises profits and liveliness.

All diners participate in tossing the ingredients to mix with everyone using their chopsticks and lifting the ingredients high above the dish, all with enthusiastic calls of "lo hei, lo hei", a phrase that means both to mix and to stir things up (in the economic sense).

"Tong Yuen"; sweet dumpling made from glutinous rice flour. Image:  Zheng Bin|Dreamstime.com
"Tong Yuen"; sweet dumpling made from glutinous rice flour. Image: Zheng Bin|Dreamstime.com

The 15th Day

Chinese New Year celebrations draw to a close on the 15th day which is the first full moon of the new year. This is also known as the Lantern Festival and traditional families hang out lanterns on this day to invite prosperity and longevity. The traditional food eaten on this day is tong yuen which are dumplings made from glutinous rice flour and filled with sweet sesame seed paste or red bean paste, served in a thin syrup. This “soup” may sometimes be spiked a touch of fresh ginger.

Lion Dance to usher in the New Year

Image:  cphoto - Fotolia.com
Image: cphoto - Fotolia.com

Dining Out at Chinese New Year

Traditionally, businesses are usually closed from early on New Year's Eve - to let all their employees return to their homes for the reunion dinner - and reopen at the earliest on the fourth day of the New Year. Only then does banqueting in restaurants begin.

In the West however, pragmatic restaurant owners remain open right through this period and offer special symbolic Chinese New Year menus together with entertainment such as troupe of "lions" during the evening.

Structure and pricing of these menus reinforce the concepts of prosperity and longevity. The Cantonese word for the number eight ("part") in Cantonese is a pun on the word for prosperity ("fatt") and banquets will be priced at say, $888 or as a combination of 8 and other auspicious numbers such as 2, 3 and 9. [You will never see the number 4 - its sound is similar to that for the word "death".]

All menus will have eight main courses and are poetically structured. For example, a menu may begin with "Sei Hei Lam Moon" (Four Happiness Coming To Your Door; consisting of a mixture of four different starters), and progress through dishes such as "Wang Choi Chou Sau" (Extra Money Outside Of Your Normal Income; consisting of braised dish of black moss pig's trotter), "Lin Lin Yau Yu" (Every Year Will Have A Surplus/Profit; consisting of steamed fish) accompanied by "Kum Cheen Moon Tei" (Money All Over The Floor; consisting of stir fried shitake mushrooms and snow pea shoots).

So, give your Chinese restaurant a call and eat yourself into a year of wealth, health and happiness!

What Do You Do For Chinese New Year?

In my family, my siblings and I continue to maintain my father's tradition of hosting a reunion dinner for our extended family on the 2nd Day of New Year. We book 3 to 4 tables of 10 persons at a restaurant and of course, the menu features all the special festive dishes.

It's a wonderful opportunity to catch up for 4 generations - my aunts, cousins, their children together with their partners and/or children. After dinner, we gather at my brother's place for the "gambling session" of Black Jack. Not big stakes but very riotous, lots of laughter...and of course, more to eat!

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Foodstuff profile imageAUTHOR

      Foodstuff 

      7 years ago from Australia

      Hi Yoko, These days, salmon is frequently used although I like using kingfish (hiramasa). This practice is actually associated more with Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore.

      Noodles are about longevity. With this raw fish salad, the tossing action is very much part of the tradition - the higher the toss, the higher the luck!

    • profile image

      yoko 

      7 years ago

      I would love to try the raw fish salad. Which fish is usually used?

      Do you know how old this tradition goes back? I've read an article that specific region in south west China had a record of eating raw fish in special occasion.

      Is this a Cantonese tradition? I knew Chinese people like eating noodle for the birthday celebration but never thought thin slices of fish got replaced!

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)