The many celebrations during Chinese New Year focus on family reunion, with people travelling across the country to visit the provinces they grew up in and the families they grew up with.
Many of these festivities centre on food, from the symbolism of each ingredient used in the celebratory dishes to the culinary rituals associated with the festival, all deeply rooted in Chinese culture.
Much of the symbolism inherent in Chinese cuisine stems from the homophones associated with each food. While all languages have homophones, they are especially prevalent in Chinese, and they play an important role in the culture of the country.
This is wholly evident in the food eaten around Chinese New Year, when certain dishes are enjoyed not only for their taste but for the symbolism associated with them: each dish represents a particular wish or hope for the coming year.
With a history of more than 1,800 years, jiaozi, or Chinese dumplings, are traditionally made and eaten on Chinese New Year’s Eve, especially in the northern provinces of China.
The dumplings, often shaped to look like boat-shaped silver ingots, an ancient Chinese currency, are symbolic of prosperity and wealth due to their auspicious shape.
In some provinces it is customary to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve to enjoy jiaozi. It is usually served with little other than garlic and soy sauce, and often a coin will be stuffed into one of the dumplings for one of the family members to find: this person will be considered to have the luckiest year ahead.
Similarly to jiaozi, tangyuan are dumplings that are enjoyed during the Chinese New Year festival. However, that is where the similarities end.
Tangyuan are made from glutinous rice flour usually filled with sesame or red bean paste and served in the sweet broth that they are cooked in. They’re traditionally enjoyed in the southern provinces of China where rice flour is more common, and they are eaten at the end rather than at the beginning of the Spring Festival celebrations, usually during the Lantern Festival.
They symbolise family reunion, as their name is a homophone for reunion, and their round shape symbolises togetherness.
Fish is often eaten at Chinese New Year, and it is an ingredient that is celebrated because of its auspicious homophones.
In Chinese, the word for fish sounds like ‘surplus’, and this is an important element for many people to have throughout the year. It is also significant to choose a certain fish based on these homophones; for example, the first character of the word for ‘crucian carp’ sounds like the Chinese word for ‘good luck’, and so therefore eating this fish is considered to bring fortune in the coming year.
It is also crucial that the fish is eaten in a certain way. It should be the last dish left at the meal and there should be some left over, as this represents surplus being available every year. This tradition is practiced north of the Yangtze River, but in other areas the head and tail shouldn’t be eaten until the very beginning of the year, expressing the hope that the year will start and finish with surplus.
Nian gao, or ‘year cake’, is a sticky rice cake which represents prosperity; the words ‘nian gao’ sounds like ‘getting higher year on year’, and this symbolises raising oneself taller in each coming year.
The Chinese word nian, meaning ‘sticky’, sounds like the word for ‘year’, while the word ‘gao’ meaning ‘cake’ is identical in sound to 高, which means ‘tall’.