Update (January 24, 2020): This article has been updated with the current date of Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year starts on January 25 and families are gathering around the table this week to welcome the 15-day holiday with an enormous feast.
The Chinese language is full of homophonic puns, so it’s no surprise that the New Year spread is abundant with symbolic foods that represent the best hopes for the coming year: prosperity, health, and thriving, happy relationships amongst family and friends.
Here are eight (a particularly lucky number in Chinese culture) dishes to eat to bring in the year of the rat:
1. Whole Chicken
A chicken, served from beak to feet, is always on the Chinese table for special occasions, as it symbolizes completeness of the family. It also resembles the phoenix, the revered mythological figure representing strength, luck, and the yin counterpart of yin and yang. It’s often served poached and accompanied with ginger-scallion oil.
“Abundance year after year” is one expression said a lot during this time of year, the word “abundance” sounding like the word for fish. An entire fish is steamed to perfection and topped with soy sauce, cilantro, and scallions.
3. Buddha’s Delight
Jai is the simple vegetarian stir-fry containing other “lucky” ingredients like gingko nuts, golden lily buds, mushrooms, and a smattering of greens to symbolize purification of the body, a nod to Chinese Buddhist roots.
4. New Year Cake
According to Grace Young, author of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, “New Year’s Cake is the most important cake eaten on New Year’s” because glutinous rice flour is a symbol of cohesiveness. The sticky, gelatinous cakes are steamed in round tins, as a circular shape represents the continuity and unity of family. When prepared, the cakes are cut into slabs, soaked in egg, and fried.
Back in Imperial China, gold ingots were the common form of currency. The shape resonates as a symbol of wealth and prosperity 500 years later. Dumplings are shaped like the ingots, so eating dumplings is like filling yourself with wealth and prosperity, get it?
Seasonal fruits symbolize life and new beginnings, but different citruses hold particular significance. Pomelos sound like the word “to have” and the word for tangerine sounds like the word for gold. These fruits, along with kumquats, lychees, and other round-shaped fruit are displayed throughout the house as edible decoration.
7. Lettuce Cups
Lettuce wraps filled with minced meat or seafood, water chestnuts and cashews are also representative of wealth and abundance. The word for lettuce sounds like the expression “growing money,” another pleasing pun to the Chinese ear. Dragon dances during Chinese New Year festivals climax with the dragon eating a head of lettuce to bring in the money for the New Year.
8. Long Life Noodles
The longer the noodles, the longer the life is the belief. A decadent plate of lobster noodles will bring in an extra dose of good luck. The word for lobster is literally “dragon shrimp” and the symbol of the dragon, another mythological figure in Chinese culture, symbolizes – you guessed it – prosperity and good luck. Additionally, lobster and chicken are complementary dishes on the dining table, as they represent the yin and yang of the female and male forms.