In celebrating Chinese New Year, the careful choice and presentation of food go beyond just taste; it’s like an art that weaves together meanings of prosperity, happiness, and good fortune. Chinese traditions put a lot of importance on what certain foods symbolize, believing that eating them can bring positive things into your life. The auspicious meanings associated with these foods often stem from their pronunciations or appearances.
In Chinese culture, being prosperous is really important, and they show this by giving ‘ampao’ or red envelopes with money during special times, bringing good luck and financial blessings. The common Chinese New Year greeting, ‘Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái’, isn’t just about wishing a happy new year; it’s more like saying, ‘I hope you become prosperous.’ So, as you explore the dishes below, you’ll discover why the Chinese don’t just order them for the delicious flavors but also to absorb the shared wishes for a joyous and prosperous year ahead. Let’s take a closer look at this special list and what makes it meaningful.
- Spring Rolls – Resembling gold bars, spring rolls symbolize wealth and prosperity. Culinary precursor of good fortune, they set the tone for an auspicious feast, marking a fresh start.
- Dumplings – Shaped like ancient Chinese money (Chinese silver ingots), dumplings embody prosperity. With origins reaching back to ancient dynasties, the act of making and consuming dumplings is a timeless ritual believed to attract good luck and wealth.
- Green Vegetables – During festive occasions like the Chinese New Year, various greens are often used in combination to create a symbolic dish that represents a wish for energy, renewal, growth. Bok choy, a type of Chinese cabbage, and Chinese mustard greens are particularly popular due to their specific associations with wealth and good fortune, adding to the overall prosperity theme of the meal.
- Pork Belly – The tradition of serving pork is rooted in the symbolism attached to the fatty portions of pork. The Chinese word for “fat” sounds similar to the word for “wealth” or “abundance” in various Chinese dialects. By including pork belly, in the New Year’s feast, there is a symbolic wish for a prosperous and abundant year ahead. The fat is seen as a representation of wealth and the hope for financial success and prosperity in the coming year.
- Longevity Noodles – Long noodles, symbolizing longevity, are presented uncut, signifying a desire for a lengthy and prosperous life. This tradition is linked to the belief that the length of the noodles corresponds to the duration of one’s life and the abundance of good fortune. This symbolic practice, observed not only in the act of eating but also in some Chinese cultures by tossing the noodles, is intended to usher in blessings of health, longevity, and prosperity in the approaching year.
- Duck or Chicken – Duck symbolizes fidelity and happiness, signifying a strong, lasting marriage and joy in family life. The word for “duck” in Chinese sounds similar to the word for mutual or together. This phonetic similarity forms the basis for the symbolic connection between duck and fidelity. The idea is that, just as ducks often mate for life and exhibit strong pair bonds, serving duck during special occasions like weddings or the Chinese New Year is believed to symbolize fidelity, faithfulness, and a harmonious union. Whole chicken, on the other hand, symbolizes family togetherness and prosperity. However, the key in serving whole duck or whole chicken lies in how it’s presented. Presenting it to guests whole first and then taking it to the kitchen to be chopped before serving is a practical solution. This approach allows adherence to any cultural or personal preferences regarding the avoidance of chopping in front of guests during Chinese New Year celebrations. It ensures that the dish is prepared in a way that respects traditions while still facilitating convenient serving in smaller portions This approach avoids the act of cutting at the table, which can be associated with severing ties. Chinese New Year is a time for unity and familial bonds, making whole or uncut dishes more auspicious.
- Prawns – With their gracefully curved shape resembling a smiling face, prawns symbolize happiness and laughter, adding a touch of joy and good fortune to the celebration. Prawns are further associated with the concept of abundance and wealth, attributed to their substantial size and the belief that they bear a resemblance to the golden ingot.
- Whole Fish – The choice of a whole fish, with head and tail intact, represents completeness, abundance and prosperity. The pronunciation “yu” for fish, is similar to “surplus.” Chinese individuals often strive to end the year with a surplus, as they believe that successfully saving something by year-end signifies the potential for greater earnings in the coming year. Serving a whole fish is also visually impactful and reinforces the idea of unity and continuity. Serving two fish symbolizes the wish for a surplus year-after-year.
- Mandarin Fruits – Round and golden oranges are tied to wealth, good luck and auspiciousness. The linguistic harmony between “orange” and “luck” makes them a favored gift during the New Year.
- Dessert: Red Bean Soup or Sweet Soup are enjoyed for their sweet taste, and the color red is associated with good luck and warding off evil spirits.
What Not to Order
While crafting an auspicious Chinese New Year meal is a delightful venture, it’s equally important to be sensitive of taboos to ensure a harmonious celebration. Here’s a list of what not to have and the cultural reasons behind these choices:
- Chrysanthemum Flowers – Beautiful but associated with funerals. To avoid any sad vibes, it’s best not to use or garnish dishes with chrysanthemums.
- Sour or Bitter Flavors – Be cautious with dishes like Bitter Melon or Hot and Sour Soup; they might be linked with negativity. During the festive season, it’s better to focus on sweet and joyful flavors.
- Sharp Objects or Cutting Tools – Serving dishes with knives or scissors is a no-go. They’re thought to cut off good fortune, which goes against the wish for a smooth and prosperous year.
- Missing or Broken Dishes – Make sure all dishes are complete and unbroken. In Chinese culture, broken or incomplete items symbolize fragmented or incomplete luck.
In additional, avoid ordering shark fin soup as it may unintentionally portray you and your companions as outdated, insensitive, grandstanding and environmentally irresponsible, especially in the context of evolving ethical and environmental concerns surrounding shark finning. Such a choice, especially during the celebration of the Chinese New Year, might create an unfavorable image and tone, as it contrasts with the growing global awareness and advocacy for more conscientious and environmentally friendly practices.
By keeping these taboos in mind and avoiding the mentioned things, you set the stage for a celebration that not only tastes good but also respects cultural traditions and brings positive vibes for the Chinese New Year. May your feast be a joyful start to the year ahead!
For businesses wanting to match their stuff with the Chinese New Year, it’s important to get what makes the celebration tick. Think of it like a puzzle, where understanding the cultural bits is a big deal. Traditional dishes have meanings tied to luck and good vibes, so it’s like uncovering a secret code. When you’re bringing out a product, try to add in things that shout out good luck, togetherness, and a long, happy life. Pick colors that are seen as lucky, use symbols that mean something, and give your product a name that fits the vibe. It’s like telling a cool story that goes along with the special foods of the festival. This way, you’re not just selling something; you’re creating an experience that feels just right for the occasion. It’s all about making sure your launch fits the culture and grabs people’s attention in the best way.
Josiah Go is the Chair and Chief Innovation Strategist at Mansmith and Fielders Inc. Please check the schedule of his appearances at www.mansmith.net