The Chinese New Year has started: here is what you need to know and what to eat to celebrate it properly
On January 23 the New Chinese Year - the one of the Dragon - begun. Chinese months are based one the lunar calendar. Each month begins from the darkest day. New Year celebrations start on the first day of the month and keep going until the 15th, when the moon is at its brightest point.
Food plays a big part in the celebrations dedicated to the New Year, as it carries symbolic meaning and it's meant to be enjoyed with the whole family, as New Year is the moment in which relatives gather together.
Chinese food is one of the best foods on Earth and has actually – proportionally speaking – the same diversity from Region to Region that Italy has.
Let's look closely at what can be served during a New Year Chinese dinner.
Spring Rolls symbolize wealth because of their resemblance to gold bars, while noodles represent long life (and that’s why it’s bad luck to cut them while eating them).
Food acquires a special meaning also because of how the words that describe it sound in Chinese. For example, the Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like rising fortune. Usually, during the New Year dinner a lettuce wrap is served filled with other luck food. The word “fish” sounds like the words “wish” and “abundance”. On New Year’s Eve it is tradition to serve a whole fish (to symbolize unity) at the end of the evening meal, which stands also a wish for abundance (basically what lentils are for Italians on New Year's Eve).
The Sticky Rice Cake, which is called Nien goh and signifies “every year you reach a higher level of life”, is a steamed fruitcake served to wish a sweet life to the commensals.
Sticky Rice Cakes
In China people also cook for the Chinese Kitchen God, who will then – according to what and how well you cooked - report favorably on the family’s behavior when he returns to heaven before the New Year starts. People usually prepare a small “altar” for him, with little quantities of food.
Chinese New Year recipes can include Jiaozi, round dumplings shaped as coins that are served around midnight. They signify money but also family reunion and that's why they are prepared all together. Taro root cakes or turnip cakes are served in the morning for breakfast.
Spring rolls or Clam Sycee are served because, resembling gold or silver buillon, they represent wealth; lettuce wraps are a must but also Lion’s Head Meatballs – big meatballs with bok choi “manes”. Pecking duck symbolizes fertility just as much as tea eggs. White Cut Chicken – that symbolizes prosperity – is served steamed with the head and feet, too, because it also symbolizes a proper beginning and end to the year; eight is considered a lucky number because the Chinese words for eight sounds like “fortune” (so eight spring rolls, etc…). Lobster represents life and energy. Flowering Chives Stir-fry is a recipe that symbolizes eternity. For luck, Chinese people display tangerines with leaves still attached.
Maybe the most symbolic dish of all New Year’s Dishes is Jai, or Buddha’s Delight, a Buddhist vegetarian dish purported to have originated from Buddhist monks who were forbidden to eat living animals and it is supposed to cleanse the body and the soul (ingredients include red dates, mushrooms, ginko nuts, winter bamboo shoots, canned water chestsnuts, cloud ears, black moss).
Whatever you do, though, don’t prepare squid. In ancient times, workers would have to work far from their homes, often bringing personal belongings with them rolled up in a blanket. When a worker was fired, he was ordered to “yow” (roll up his blanket), and had to pack his stuff and go home. Serving squid, then, symbolizes being fired in the coming year.
But how did the Chinese New Year tradition started?
A story says that in ancient times, on Chinese New Year, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him. Twelve animals came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality. The ones born during the dragon year are innovative and brave, for example. Among the traditions that are still alive during the New Year celebrations is the Lantern Festival, held on the 15th day of the first lunar month. Usually, the lanterns are beautifully crafted with drawings and people hang them in temples and carry them to parades under the light of the full moon.
In many areas the highlight of the Festival of Lanterns is the dragon dance, a dragon made of silk and paper which is held by men who hide themselves underneath it, and dance while guiding the dragon through the streets.
There is another legend, though, that recounts that the beginning of Chinese New Year started with a fight against a mythical beast called the Nian, who would come on the first day of New Year to eat crops, food and even people, most of the times children. To try to protect themselves, villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year, because they believed that Nian would be satisfied with the food prepared for him and would not attack anymore. One time, the monster got scared by a child wearing red, and since then people understood that that color scared him. So every time New Year was approaching, they would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows. Nian never came to the village again.
That is why during these celebrations the protagonist is the red color: people wear red clothes, and give children “lucky money” in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire that supposedly keeps away bad spirits. Fireworks are performed because of the same reason.
Chinese New Year is observed as a public holiday in many countries that presents a large Chinese community: Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Christmas Island, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines.
Written by Elisa della Barba