Family is the basis of the Chinese society, which is seen through the significance placed on the New Year’s Eve dinner (年夜饭 / Nián yèfàn) or Reunion dinner (团年饭 / tuán niánfàn).
This feast is extremely important to the Chinese. All family members must come back. Even if they truly can’t, the rest of the family will leave their spot empty and place a spare set of utensils for them.
In the legend of the Spring Festival’s origin, this was when the monster Nian would come and terrorize the villages. The people would hide in their homes, prepare a feast with offerings to the ancestors and gods, and hope for the best.
Food is one of the things that the Chinese take the most pride in. And of course, lot of care and thought is put into the menu for the most important holiday of the year.
As with Chinese New Year activities and decorations, the dishes are created to give blessings for the next year. Both the names and looks are symbols of wishes for prosperity, happiness and auspiciousness.
Though every region (even household) have different customs, there are some common dishes seen on every table.
Spring Rolls 春卷 (chūn juǎn)
Eggrolls are probably the most well-known of Chinese cuisine. However, they’re actually “spring rolls.” They are eaten during the Spring Festival in Southern China to celebrate the coming of spring. More specifically, they are eaten on the first day of spring (立春 / lì chūn). They can appear on the table as a dinner dish, appetizer or snack.
Most are familiar with the deep fried version of spring rolls. Throughout China, they can also be steamed or baked. Size and shape vary from small rectangles to large flat circles.
During the Jin Dynasty (circa 265–420), people would arrange spring rolls and vegetables together on a plate. This was known as the Spring Platter (春盘 / chūn pán). During the Spring Festival, emperors would award officials with Spring Platters. Each platter is said to have been worth thousands.
Spring roll skins are made of flour, water and some salt. The filling depends on your personal taste. Traditionally, the filling is made of pork, Chinese cabbage, shiitake, carrots and seasoning.
For those with a sweet tooth, there are Shangainese style red bean paste spring rolls. Now, there are even ice cream fillings!
To make, create the filling of your choice. Place around 2 spoons onto the center of the spring roll skin. Tuck in the sides and roll it up, sealing the edges with egg whites. Finish by throwing them into the deep fryer until the skin is golden and crispy.
Dumplings 饺子 (jiǎo zi)
Another well-known dish, dumplings are the northern equivalent of spring rolls. They are eaten during every special occasion, but are the most significant during Chinese New Year. That’s a lot of dumplings! But there’s good reason.
In Chinese, dumplings 饺子 (jiǎo zi) sounds like 交子 (jiāo zi). 交 (Jiāo) means “exchange” and 子 (zi) is the midnight hour. Put together, jiāo zi is the exchange between the old and new year. All dumplings should be wrapped at this time. By eating dumplings, you are sending away the old and welcoming the new.
There are too many different types of filling to count. You can have whatever type of meat, vegetable and flavor you’d like.
Typically, they include Chinese cabbage, green onion, pork and shrimp (similar to spring rolls).
In the Suzhou province, egg fillings are a must. The dumpling symbolizes the silver ingot, while the egg is gold. Meat and bamboo strip filling is called 丝丝齐齐 (sī sī qí qí), which means that everything needed will be available.
Some people will also put a coin in a random dumpling. Whoever eats it will have great luck that year.
In addition to the joy of eating delicious food, the making process is a family bonding activity too. During New Year preparations, every member of the family participates and wraps dumplings. In certain regions, the daughter-in-law must make a dumpling to be considered part of the family.
Noodles 长面 (cháng miàn)
In some places, it’s custom to cook dumplings and noodles together. This is called gold silk and gold ingots. It’s yet another dish to express people’s wishes for prosperity.
Though the origin of noodles is heavily disputed, there’s no doubt that noodles are a staple in Chinese cuisine.
In the beginning, they were called “soup pancakes” (汤饼 / tang miàn). People would tear the dough into little pieces and throw them into the pot. It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty when people began rolling them into the noodle shape we know today.
For Chinese New Year, people like to eat long noodles.
They are also called 长寿面 (cháng shòu miàn), which means “longevity noodles.” You aren’t allowed to cut them and should try not to chew either. The longer the noodle, the longer your life will be. This calls for a lot of slurping.
With noodles, there is great flexibility for sides and ingredients. Many vegetables and meats have symbolic meanings as well.
- Eggs: big and healthy family
- Lobster: endless money rolling in
- Shrimp: fortune and wealth
- Roasted pig: peace
- Duck: loyalty
- Peaches: longevity
- Tofu: happiness and fortune for the entire family
- Fish: surplus and wealth
Steamed Fish 蒸鱼 (zhēng yú)
Fish is a must for the Chinese New Year. Why does fish symbolize surplus and wealth? In Chinese, fish 鱼 (yú) has the same pronunciation as 余, which means “surplus” or “extra.” The typical blessing is 年年有余 (Nián nián yǒuyú), wishing you to have a surplus (or fish) of food and money every year.
Half of the fish is eaten for dinner, and the second half the next day. This is to prolong the surplus and make the future prosperous as well. A whole fish also represents a harmonious and whole family.
Some would cook a bigheaded carp. But only the middle would be eaten, while the head and tail are left intact. The Chinese phrase is 有头有尾 (yǒu tóu yǒu wěi)—to have both a head and tail. This is a reminder to finish everything you start and wish for positive results. During dinner, the fish head should be placed facing the guests.
In Hunan, red peppers are added after broiling the fish. Red is a festive and lucky color and the spicy hotness expresses wishes for fiery (thriving) business in the new year.
Steamed Chicken 蒸鸡 (zhēng jī)
A whole chicken is another symbol of family. Rich in protein, one chicken is enough to feed an entire family. It represents reunion and rebirth. To express this auspicious meaning, people keep the head and claws.
After cooking, people will first offer the chicken to the ancestors. Though only a superstition now, praying to the ancestors for blessings and protection is still a significant part of the Spring Festival and Chinese culture.
In Hubei, chicken soup is the first meal of the new year. It is a wish for peace. The main workers of the family should eat chicken feet, also called “phoenix claws” (凤爪 / fèng zhuǎ). This is supposed to help them grasp onto wealth. Chicken wings help you fly higher, while the bones represent outstanding achievement.
For the first meal, some also cook eggs. The egg white and yolk represent gold and silver and are simple gifts for friends and neighbors.
Nian Gao 年糕 (nián gāo)
Nian gao, also known as “rice cake” or “New Year cake” in English, are a must for Chinese New Year.
In ancient times, nian gao were used only as offerings to the ancestors and gods. Gradually, they became a traditional dish during the Spring Festival. Now they are available every day of the year, but are still a special treat for the festival.
Nian gao also has the same pronunciation as 高 (gāo, meaning tall or high). It’s a wish to be successful and “higher” each year. Every year will be better than the last. Some humorous parents like to tell their children that eating this will help them grow taller too.
They are either made of sticky glutinous rice or yellow rice, giving nian gao two major colors and textures.
Nian gao was already popular during the Wei and Jin dynasties (220-420). But after more than two thousand years of development, there are a crazy amount of variations. Nian gao from northern regions and the south almost seem like entirely different things.
They are typically are savory in the South. Store-bought nian gao are hard and must be boiled first. They are then steamed or cooked with vegetables and meat.
Rather than the usual batter, sugar can be added to the glutinous rice powder to make the sweet nian gao favored by the North. The batter can also include lard, rose petals, osthmanthus, hibiscus and mint for extra flavoring. For the ones with a true sweet tooth, it’s also acceptable to directly dip nian gao in white sugar.
In Beijing, the types seen are jujube nian gao (红枣年糕 / hóng zǎo nián gāo), hundred fruit nian gao (百果年糕 / bǎi guǒ nián gāo) and white nian gao (白年糕 / Bái nián gāo). Jujube (枣 / zǎo) has the same pronunciation as early (早), while hundred fruit nian gao represent a cornucopia of precious gems.
It’s common to steam nian gao with jujube and red beans in Hebei. On the other hand, people of Shanxi and Inner Mongoliao like to deep fry the batter and add fillings of red bean paste and mashed jujube.
Spring is the season to plant new seeds. Traditionally, the Spring Festival is the best time to finish all the vegetables stored and preserved from the winter.
This dish can be called 田园素小炒 (tián yuán sù xiǎo chǎo), or countryside vegetarian stir-fry. Mushrooms, jujube and Chinese cabbage are often included, in addition to your typical greens.
Some symbolic vegetables to consider are:
- Seaweed: symbolize wealth and fortune
- Lotus seeds: a blessing for many children and a healthy family
- Bamboo shoots: represent longevity, as well as going onward and up
- Muskmelon and grapefruit: symbolize family and hope. In addition, grapefruit symbolizes wealth and prosperity
- Osmanthus flower petals: in Chinese, osmanthus (桂 / guì) is a homophone 贵, which means noble and precious
- Leek/chives: leek (韭 / jiǔ) sounds similar to 久, meaning long and everlasting
- Poria mushrooms: another play on words, this mushroom (茯苓 / fú líng) sounds similar to 福禄 (fú lù), or blessings and fortune
Hot Pot 火锅 (huǒ guō)
For many, hot pot is the centerpiece of Spring Festival dinners.
Hot pot is another food that has a long history. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty is the most avid fan. When he held feasts for old and retired officials, hot pot with meat were always on the menu. During his New Year’s Eve dinner, there were 120 dishes for lunch and even more for hot pot.
Despite being loved by commoners and royalty alike, hot pots are actually quite basic. It’s simply a bubbling pot and plates of uncooked meat and vegetables. You can choose whatever you like to throw into the pot. Wait until it’s cooked, take it out and eat.
Part of the flavor comes from the broth you choose in the pot. The other part is your own dipping sauce. There are special hot pot sauces. You can also make your own using one raw egg, sesame paste, salt, sugar, cilantro and peppers. Hot pot is an extremely customizable dish. Everything mentioned in this article can be included, even the noodles!
Some of the foods in this article, such as spring rolls and dumplings, can also be eaten outside of the main meal. Of course, there are many more snacks and desserts throughout the duration of the Spring Festival. As the TV Show “A Bite of China” (舌尖上的中国 / shé jiān shàng de zhōng guó) said, even if the other ancient traditions of the Spring Festival are modernized, the food culture will never disappear.