Tatler rounds up five must-have dishes for your Chinese New Year feast so you can eat your way to good fortune
Chinese New Year (also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival) is filled with many myths and customs which date back hundreds of years. Amongst its many legends and lores are symbolic foods and hearty dishes that can be found at every dinner table, especially during the reunion dinner (Chinese New Year’s Eve), and throughout the jubilant festive period.
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Not only is the reunion dinner spread usually massive, but each delicious dish has meaning, from signifying prosperity to abundance to auspiciousness and good fortune. Here are five must-have dishes and what they represent:
1. Wealth: Spring rolls
Traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival, this Chinese New Year dish is said to bring wealth and good fortune. Especially popular in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Fujian, these yellow, gold-bar-like deep-fried rolls are usually stuffed with a variety of shredded vegetables and meat (pork and shrimp).
Tatler Tip: The lucky saying for eating spring rolls is hwung-jin wan-lyang, which translates into 'a ton of gold’ and means wishing for prosperity.
2. Success: Glutinous rice cake
Glutinous rice cake or niangao is a soft and sticky dessert made of glutinous rice flour. Also commonly known as ‘new year cake’, the words nian and gao sound like ‘getting higher year-on-year’ so it is considered good luck to eat niangao because it symbolises success in life. In Shanghai, a savoury version is typically stir-fried in dishes.
Tatler Tip: It is also considered a good gift to bring along when you make your Chinese New Year visits as this means you are wishing good fortune upon your receiver.
3. Prosperity: Fish
Served whole and usually steamed with ginger and scallions, fish is a staple for Chinese New Year meals. In Mandarin, the word ‘fish’ (yu) is a homophone for ‘surplus’ or ‘abundance’, thus symbolising an abundance of prosperity for the coming year. The most common types of fish used for this dish are catfish (means ‘year of surplus'), crucian carp (means good luck), or Chinese mud carp (means wishing for good fortune).
Tatler Tip: Never flip over a whole fish as it is considered bad luck. Turning over a fish is akin to turning over a fishing boat. Instead, remove the backbone to access the other side but ensure the head and tail remains intact.
4. Longevity: Noodles
Made with long noodles (up to two feet long!), longevity noodles symbolise a long, healthy, and happy life. Often eaten at Chinese banquets, birthdays, and especially Chinese New Year, the simple but auspicious dish is usually served stir-fried with just a handful of sliced meat (chicken or pork) and vegetables.
Tatler Tip: Double your luck by slurping up the noodles without biting through the strands. Breaking the noodle represents a life cut short.
5. Wealth: Dumplings
A staple especially during Chinese New Year’s Eve when family members gather to eat a reunion meal, dumplings signify wealth because they resemble ancient silver and gold ingots. These little ‘pockets of fortune’ usually consists of minced meat (minced pork, diced shrimp, fish, ground chicken or beef) and chopped vegetables, and are either boiled, steamed, fried, or baked.
Tatler Tip: The Chinese believe that the more dumplings you eat during the Chinese New Year celebrations, the more money you will make in the coming year. So feel free to eat plenty!
This article was published on January 5, 2022 and was updated on January 16, 2023.