Non-native Chinese speakers who try to pick up the language are often amused to discover that different words can possess the same pronunciations while taking on entirely different meanings and characteristics. For instance, the word “no”, pronounced as 不(bù), shares the same pronunciation as 布, which is Chinese for cloth.
Being a superstitious bunch, the Chinese have used this similarity in pronunciation to associate luck, prosperity, and good health with a list of foods and dishes typically eaten during Chinese New Year. They have, very creatively, attached symbolism and meaning to dishes as commonplace as noodles and fish.
Sounds corny enough – but if this is your first time to a Chinese New Year celebration, it can be good fun to embrace these festive traditions. After all, it’s not often that eating noodles may bring you luck and take you one step closer to whatever your heart desires.
Here is a list of Chinese New Year dishes and their cultural symbolism.
Fish is a mainstay of any reunion dinner menu. In Chinese, it is pronounced as 鱼 yú, which so happens to bear the same pronunciation as 余, or “surplus”. This is the very reason Yusheng is eaten every Chinese New Year.
Eating fish will bring about extra fortunes, adding to a larger surplus towards the year end.
You can steam, fry or bake the fish, as long as it remains whole and intact, representing a good beginning and end for the new year.
2. Mandarin oranges and pomelos
Mandarin oranges and pomelos are eaten or displayed during Chinese New Year due to their round and full shapes. The fruits symbolise fullness and wealth, and on top of that, the colour of the mandarin orange is similar to that of gold.
They are also chosen because of how their names are pronounced and written in Chinese. Orange in Chinese is 橙 (chéng), which sounds like the word 成, the Chinese word for success. Tangerine is written as 桔 (jú), which contains the Chinese character for luck, 吉 (jí). The Chinese word for pomelo 柚 (yòu) sounds exactly like the words 有 (yǒu) and 又 (yòu), which means “to have” and “again” respectively.
3. Glutinous rice cakes
Glutinous rice cake, or 年糕 (nián gāo), is eaten during Chinese New Year. The reason behind the tradition is because its name sounds exactly like 年高, which means “to progress with each year”.
This bodes well for businesses, which signifies greater prosperity and growth with each passing year. Made of sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts, dates and wrapped in lotus leaves, it is the most tasty when coated in batter and deep fried.
4. Spring rolls
Spring rolls, 春卷 (chūn juǎn), doesn’t sound like anything auspicious, but they are a favourite during Chinese New Year due to their resemblance to gold bars. If you have not realised this by now, the Chinese are absolutely obsessed with wealth. That said, spring rolls are delicious, regardless of their materialistic connotations.
Spring rolls have their own lucky sayings. You should say 黄金万两 ( huang-jin wan-liang) which translates to “thousands of golds”, before you tuck into one of these yummy snacks.
5. Chinese dumplings
Dumplings are shaped like silver ingots. Their boat-shaped appearance bear a close resemblance to taels of silver, a type of currency used in ancient China. While their name 餃子 (jiăo zi) doesn’t sound particularly auspicious, they are eaten as a symbol of creating wealth. So the more dumplings you eat, the more prosperous you will be.
If you want to raise the superstitious bar when handmaking dumplings, you need to note the following:
Make many pleats in the bow of the dumpling. The more pleats there are, the richer you will be.
Arrange dumplings in a line instead of a circle. If you arrange the dumplings in a circle, this will translate to a life that also “goes around in circles”, which means a life fraught with anxiety and frustration. Sounds frightening, doesn’t it?
6. Glutinous rice balls
Chewy rice balls filled with peanut, black sesame or red bean paste served in a sweet, clear soup infused with ginger and pandan. The popular Chinese sweet delicacy is called 汤圆 (tāngyuán), bearing some similarity to the word 团圆 (túan yúan), which means “reunion” or “togetherness.”
The Chinese adore circular shapes, as they represent unity and perfection. Eaten from a round bowl, these rice balls are loved by both children and adults alike.
7. Longevity noodles
Longer than your run-of-the-mill yellow noodles or vermicelli, longevity noodles, or 长寿面 (cháng shòu miàn) are said to symbolise a wish for a long and fruitful life. But one must slurp the noodles whole, as chewing them mid-way symbolises cutting one’s life short. Longevity noodles are made from egg and wheat, and are served fried or in soup.
8. Steamed prosperity cakes
Prosperity cakes, or 发糕 (fā gāo) are steamed cakes made of rice flour, sugar and yeast. They come in an array of colours and look like misshaped cupcakes. The word 发 can mean “to prosper” as well as “to rise”, just like how breads and cakes do when heat is applied. The top of the cake splits open to form “petals” and resemble a flower. It is believed that the more “petals” the cake has, the more prosperity it will bring.