There are almost as many traditions about food and Chinese New Year as there are Chinese families. Customs vary between regions and even between villages. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive or definitive list of all the traditions but should give you a flavour of some of the more common and the more widespread ones.
New Year Cake / NiángÄo’
These cakes come in many varieties but they all consist of a dough made from glutinous rice powder. They are considered to be lucky in Chinese culture as the name of the cake ‘NiángÄo’ is a homonym for ‘higher year’ or ‘better year’.
There are a number of different stories and legends about New Year Cake. One story is that they originated in Suzhou during the Spring and Autumn period (770 to 476 BC) – once there was an especially good harvest which resulted in a surplus of rice. Rather than simply distributing or selling it the ruler decided that this excess rice should be steamed, mashed and formed into bricks which were then put inside the city walls. Many years later there was a famine and people remembered the old story about the bricks made from rice – they broke open the walls and discovered the rice cakes which saved the city from starvation.
This snack is often thought of as an offering to the Kitchen God; with the intention being that the sticky cakes stop him from talking and spreading rumours about the family.
These are a common new year dish. ‘Jiaozi’ are a type of dumplings more common in northern china and are often eaten at midnight on New Year because they are shaped like gold ingots and so represent prosperity. Rather like a Christmas pudding in the west – coins or jewellery are sometimes added to one of the dumplings and are supposed to bring luck to the person who finds it. Conversely it is considered a bad omen for the year ahead if you break a dumpling.
One story of their origin is that they were made from the flesh of a monster who had been terrorizing a town, another is that they were used as a treatment for frostbite to the ears (as the shaper resembles an ear). In Cantonese china dumplings are known as jau gok.
These are linked to Chinese New Year as visitors often bring either two or four mandarins to give to their hosts. This practice originated as the word for mandarin can resemble the word for ‘gold’ so they are thought to be harbingers of good fortune for the year ahead.
Yousheng is a comparatively recent dish that originated in Singapore and Malaysia. This dish consists of shredded vegetables and raw fish. When it is served the diners stand up and toss the ingredients into the air with chopsticks. It is believed that the height of the toss reflects the height of the fortune the person can expect that year, thus enthusiastic tossing is encouraged.
On the first day of the year it is sometimes customary to eat ‘buddha’s delight’. This is a vegetarian dish that often contains black fungus and noodles and is cooked in a soy-based sauce. The name reflects a Buddhist tradition that you should refrain from eating any meat for the first five days of the year.
The whole of the animal should be served, so if you are serving chicken or duck that should include the head and the feet, similarly if you are having fish it should include the head and the tail. Fish is also considered to be auspicious as the word resembles that for ‘surplus’ – in some places it is a tradition not to finish all of the fish as this encourages those surpluses for the year ahead.
Rice balls are symbolic of reunion and togetherness. Spring rolls are a good harvest and prosperity. Soybean sprouts are lucky as they are a similar shape to ruyi.
In many families nowadays hot pots (da bian lu / suan huoguo) are served for celebrations as it is an easy way to feed a large number of people.