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The Fascinating Symbolism Behind Chinese Lunar New Year Dishes

A delicious Lunar New Year spread on a round table

Lunar New Year preparations are as personalized as the families celebrating them across various countries in Asia, with regional and individual preferences making each one slightly different. Nonetheless, there are certain commonalities that are eagerly anticipated favourites on Chinese Lunar New Year tables, prized for both their flavours and the meaning imbued in each dish. This symbolism  can come from a pun or wordplay around the sound of the name (for example, the number eight is favoured due to the association between its name, baht, and prosperity), or from its shape or colour. Read on for the stories and symbols around some of the most popular and delicious dishes enjoyed at Chinese Lunar New Year.

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Molly Yeh's Chicken Pot Stickers with Dipping Sauce

Dumplings

Dumplings are a way to bring the family together, both in making them and eating them to spend time between the old and new years. Folding pleats in the wrapper dough signify both the skill of the dumpling maker and good luck and wealth (the dumplings are reportedly shaped like currency), and can be stuffed with a variety of meat or vegetable-based fillings, such as pork and cabbage.

Get the recipe: Molly Yeh’s Chicken Pot Stickers with Dipping Sauce

A clay pot of Chinese seafood

Seafood

Seafood, especially abalone, is prized both for its expensive nature and the similarities of its name to the idea of guaranteed prosperity (bau yue). In North America, abalone is often found in cans at Asian grocery stores and can be served on its own or as part of braised dishes with dried oysters and black moss, both of which represent good luck and fortune.

A bowl of prepared mushrooms

Mushrooms

Mushrooms, due to their round shape resembling coins, also make a regular appearance at celebratory feasts. There are many varieties of dried mushrooms, ranging in price, and flower mushrooms are often prized by connoisseurs. Dried mushrooms need to be soaked before using, and can be stir fried, braised or steamed.

Related: 10 Popular Chinese Lunar New Year Recipes (in Serving Order)

Two Chinese steamed fish on a stainless steel platter

Fish

Fish is served whole for Chinese celebrations, as the head and tail represent beginnings and endings of a good year (it is sometimes served as the last savoury dish of a banquet so that it can be on the table for the changeover in year). Grouper (or garoupa) is a popular option, served steamed and bathed in a combination of ginger, green onions, and soy based sauce. Carp, which can live in the wild for decades and represents good fortune, can also be served red cooked (fried and then braised in sauce). Whatever the variety, the fish should be large enough that there’s leftovers, as the dish symbolizes abundance based on the wordplay of the pronunciation in various dialects.

Get the recipe: Chinese Ginger-Soy Sea Bass

A bowl of e-fu noodles

E-fu noodles

Braised e-fu noodles are a traditional symbol of longevity, and the length of noodles eaten at the Chinese lunar new year represent lifespan, so don’t cut them before serving. Sold dried in large round pucks at Asian grocery stores, the noodles are sometimes also boiled and pan-fried.

Tong yuen in a white bowl

Tong yuen

Tong yuen, balls made with glutinous rice flour and stuffed with red bean or black sesame paste, are often made to celebrate the end of the two-week new year’s celebrations at the Lantern Festival and symbolize the togetherness of the family unit. Swimming in a clear soup, the spheres release a flood of colourful filling when pierced with a spoon, contrasting with the sweet stickiness of the dumpling.

Related: Make These Soft and Fluffy BBQ Pork Bao Buns for Lunar New Year

A platter of lunar new year nian gao

Nian gao

Flat discs or squares of nian gao, or New Year’s cake, also made with glutinous or sweet rice flour and studded with textural counterpoints from sesame seeds to chestnuts, are prized for their similarity in name to the word for high (gao), indicating a long life. Nian gao can be steamed or pan fried, which gives them a slightly crisp outer shell to offset the sticky interior.

A platter of lunar new year sweets

Tangerines and sweets

Tangerines are often brought as a present on the first day of the new year when paying respect to one’s elders or visiting friends and family (bai nian), as the orange fruit have a name that resembles the word for gold in some dialects. A pair of tangerines can often be accompanied by red packets distributed in equal amounts by married couples to children or single people. Dishes with different sweets, often offered in eight forms, can be presented with candy, sweet-sour red dates (Chinese jujubes) or melon seeds, representing fertility.

*Note: All Chinese names in this article are English phonetic translations of the Cantonese terms and may vary in terms of spelling, depending on the recipe, producer or grocer.

Images courtesy of Getty and Unsplash.