Since the Chinese believe that what you eat in the New Year will improve your good fortune for the year ahead, custom calls for auspicious foods to be served, especially on New Year’s Eve.
The Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner is a time for all family members, from near and far, to gather together. Three or four generations of a family may feast on a lavish dinner, the biggest dinner of the year in fact. This reunion dinner is frequently called “Wei lu” or “surrounding the fire stove,” alluding to the traditional fire stove under the family table which provides a cozy and warm atmosphere.
Every dish on the table, and almost every ingredient within each dish, is rich in symbolic meaning. Tradition also dictates that an even number of courses or dishes served—often eight, ten or twelve—be in multiples of two, to signify double blessings. In recent years, an increasing number of local families prefer to have their reunion dinner in restaurants instead of at home. After all, it can require a lot of time and energy to prepare the reunion dinner at home. However, in spite of the changing lifestyle, the belief related to these auspicious dishes still takes a firm root in the Chinese tradition.
While each family has its own meal traditions for the New Year, some common selections include the following:
Whole steamed fish (usually a carp) is an important dish during the reunion dinner as it symbolizes togetherness and abundance. The fish is never fully eaten, signifying that the family will always have more than enough. To ensure continuous fortune, it’s important not to break the fish during and after cooking.
Although Westerners often wince at the sight of a whole chicken—with head, tail and feet intact—in China a chicken served whole symbolizes completeness or family unity and happy marriage.
The Chinese word for oyster, “hao,” basically means “an auspicious occasion or event” and symbolizes receptivity to good fortune.
Always served uncut, noodles are a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. They are as much a part of a Chinese birthday celebration as a birthday cake with candles is in Western countries.
“Jiaozi,” or Chinese dumplings, boiled in water, are one of the most significant festive dishes, especially for people in the north. The term has multiple meanings, one of which is “midnight, or the end and the beginning of time.” This is why jiaozi are prepared before midnight of the last day of the passing lunar year and eaten after the New Year’s bell sound.
Another meaning of the term comes from the literal translation “to sleep together and have sons,” which is a long-lost good wish for a family. Besides, eating jiaozi is a metaphor of eating money; since its shape is similar to ancient Chinese gold and silver ingot.
“Nian gao” is a sweet, sticky brown cake made from glutinous rice flour and sugar. It’s a traditional favorite and common dish among Southern Chinese. Pronunciation of its name, “Nian gao,” sounds like “yearly taller.” As such, eating nian gao is a symbol of progress and promotion at work and improvement in life with each coming year. It is also believed that the higher the cake rises, the better the year will be!
Oranges and Tangerines
Oranges and tangerines symbolize abundant happiness. Etiquette indicates that a bag of oranges and tangerines should be taken as a gift when visiting a Chinese family during the two-week celebration. This ensures a long relationship with the person/people you’re visiting.