According to the Chinese calendar, 2022 is the Year of the Tiger, and New Year’s Day falls on February 1. Chinese Lunar New Year festivities last for 15 days (16, in fact, if we include the New Year’s Eve reunion dinner) when symbolic food and dishes are served, and money tucked in red envelopes are distributed for luck.
But it isn’t just in China where the Lunar New Year is celebrated. Aside from China, the Lunar New Year is an officially designated holiday in regions that still follow the lunisolar calendar including Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Mongolia, South Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam. Even outside Asia, in places with large Chinese communities but where the Lunar New Year is not an official holiday, celebrations take place too.
Wherever in the world the Lunar New Year is celebrated, there’s always food. Not just any food, mind you, but symbolic food chosen either for their appearance, characteristic or because their names are homonyms for luck, wealth, harmony, unity, longevity, prosperity… All the desirable things one can wish for one’s family.
Nian gao, or sticky rice cake, comes in many forms but why it is served on the Lunar New Year is based on three things. The first has to do with pronunciation.
… the words nian gao (sticky cake) sound similar to “year high” and this has come to symbolise a higher income, position and children (in terms of growth), with the overall promise of a great year ahead.“Why is eating turnip cake and nian gao sticky rice cakes believed to bring good luck during Lunar New Year?” in SCMP
A popular gift and traditional sweet for the Chinese Lunar New Year, nian gao is a sticky rice cake that can be served in various ways. Fry it, steam it, roll in sesame seeds or dessicated coconut, or use as fried spring roll filling.
The second is based on the superstition that the Kitchen God resides in every home.
At the end of every year, folklore says, the Kitchen God makes his “yearly report” to the Jade Emperor. To prevent him from badmouthing their house, people offered niangao, which would stick his mouth shut. Hence, niangao is prepared for offering before Chinese New Year.“Nian Gao (Chinese New Year Cake): Meaning, Types, Recipe” in China Highlights
The third has to do with a legend involving a monster known as Nian who preyed on a village and the Gao family that found a way to make it go away and leave the village in peace. How? By feeding it rice cakes and scaring it with firecrackers. Henceforth, the sticky rice cakes came to be known as nian gao after the name of the monster and the family that saved the village.
Any occasion that calls for wishes for longevity — including birthdays and the Lunar New Year — will include uncut noodles in the menu. Yes, uncut. They should be as long as can be managed by the cook. Cutting the noodles is like wishing to have life cut short.
What kind of noodles? It doesn’t matter. Rice noodles, wheat noodles, egg noodles… they will all do for as long as they are cooked and served uncut.
The Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for “surplus”. But a fish served whole with the head and tail intact also represents family togetherness and unity.
There are apputenant practices when cooking whole fish for the Lunar New Year. It is not always the case that the fish is served during a meal. Sometimes, it is cooked and left as an offering to gods and ancestors.
When serving as part of the meal, the head of the fish is reserved for the most important guest, or elder. On the table, the fish head should be pointing toward that person too. Leftover from the whole fish is a must for the dish to truly represent surplus. In some cases, to ensure surplus, two whole fish are cooked. One is served on New Year’s Eve and one is left to become the surplus and eaten on New Year’s Day.
Dumplings, fried spring rolls and sweet sticky rice balls
Dumplings and fried spring rolls make an appearance on the Luna New Year meal for their resemblance to objects that represent wealth. Dumplings are thought to resemble the sycee while fried spring rolls look like gold bars.
Sweet sticky rice balls are more often associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival but, in Southern China, they are consumed during the Lunar New Year celebrations because the “pronunciation and round shape of tangyuan are associated with reunion and being together.”
Mandarin oranges, tangerines and pomelos are displayed, served and eaten as part of the Lunar New Year traditions. Their golden color and spherical shape symbolize wealth and fullness.