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Chinese New Year Food Symbols

by Erin Moriarity

Holidays and Celebrations

Winter Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(4) page(s): 17

Chinese New Year, also known as the 'Lunar New Year,' is an important celebration for Chinese and other Asian populations all over the world. Other Asian New Year celebrations are found in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, and the Philippines and they are celebrated at the same time. These cultures have in common, a traditional calendar based on lunar and solar movements.

The Chinese Lunar New Year table overflows with symbolic foods that bring good luck and fortune to those households that use them. Traditionally, red meat is not served during the New Year celebration. Fish is, to ensure long life and good fortune. A whole fish represents togetherness and abundance as the Chinese word for fish, yu, rhymes with the word for 'surplus.' Saving half of a fish eaten on New Year’s Eve for the following day, symbolizes that families can transfer their surplus luck to the New Year. There are other food symbolisms, a few follow, no order of importance intended.

Scallions and lettuce are symbols of Spring. The Chinese Lunar New Year is also known as 'Spring Festival.' These two foods are often hung over front doorways during the New Year. Red dates are popular as bring hope for prosperity. Melon seeds speak of proliferation. Lotus seeds signify a family’s prosperity through time and signify their having many male offspring. Lotus root stands for abundance, its holes represent a mind open to new ideas.

Oranges and tangerines symbolize wealth, good fortune, and abundant happiness. Tangerines with intact leaves assure that relationships will remain secure. They also signify the branching of a newlywed couple into a family with many children. The many seeds of pomegranates also symbolize many children. It is customary for guests to present a bag of oranges or tangerines or both when visiting a household. The very small tart little citrus fruits are called kumquats. The word kum in it sounds like the Chinese word for gold.

The circular or octagonal-shaped prosperity tray is commonplace at Chinese New Year. It should have eight sides because the number eight is also a symbol, that of prosperity. This tray, served to guests, is filled with eight symbolic sweets. They are candied melon which represents growth and good health, melon seed dyed red to symbolize joy, happiness, truth and sincerity, lychee nuts to speak of strong family relationships, the kumquat for prosperity or gold, coconut represents togetherness, peanuts symbolize long life, the longan represents many good sons, and lotus seeds symbolize many children. Adults must place a lai see or red envelope in the center of this tray after enjoying a piece of its contents. There are many more foods that are symbolic. Ginkgo nuts represents silver ingots. Black moss also known as hair seaweed is eaten for exceeding wealth while dried bean curd is a symbol for fulfillment of wealth and happiness. Bamboo is symbolic of longevity and strength, the Cantonese word for bamboo shoots phonetically sounds like wishing that everything will be well.

Fresh bean curd or tofu is not eaten as its white color signifies death and misfortune. But chicken is, because it represents prosperity and rebirth. The chicken should be presented with head, tail and feet, because doing so symbolizes completeness.

Noodles should be served uncut as they represent long life. Lobster represents energy and spirit. Dried oysters are for good business as the Cantonese word, hoe see, sounds similar to good business. Shrimp, if there, symbolize happiness and good fortune because the word for shrimp or har is the Chinese word that is the sound of laughter.

String beans mean longevity, seasonal green Chinese vegetables including mustard greens and snow pea shoots symbolize money. The roast pig symbolizes peace and purification, while abalone, bird’s nest, crab roe, shrimp roe, sea cucumber, and shark’s fin are festive luxury ingredients.

The Cantonese word for lettuce, sang choy, sounds like growing fortune while leafy mustard greens are called the longevity vegetable. Red bean soup represents strength. All round or coin-shaped foods such as clams, scallops, black mushrooms, pork shoulder, dumplings, and a range of sweet and savory New Year cakes such as nian gao representiprosperity, completeness, perfection, family unity, and continuity. Nian gao is a steamed rice cake and the higher it rises, the better the year will be. Whole foods including a whole fish, chicken, or a whole pig, symbolize a proper beginning to the New Year.

Vegetarians have their special foods, and they and all Chinese serve Buddha’s Delight or jai. This vegetarian dish consists of various dried vegetables such as cloud ears, black moss, dried lily buds, dried bean curd sticks, cellophane noodles and Chinese dried mushroom. Each ingredient mentioned, and others that are not, carry with them a symbolic meaning for the New Year. Most are universal, but a few have local or regional meaning. All are important to the Chinese.
Erin H. Moriarty first wrote this as a flyer when she was 'Gardener-in-Residence' at the Queens Botanical Garden in Flushing, New York. She studied the integral role plants play in cultural traditions and customs of the county’s diverse residents. With her B.A. in Ethnobotany from Vassar College; she was comfortable talking and touring Queens sharing food and cultural knowledge. Now, working towards an M.S. in Landscape Architecture at Cornell University, she is sorely missed from the New York City scene. ____________________________________________________

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