Lunar New Year: the story behind the food

by Amy Lo19 January 2023

As Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year, is celebrated more and more throughout the western world, many of the traditional dishes eaten on the day have become increasingly popular. Amy Lo takes a closer look at the significance of these specific dishes.

Amy Lo is journalist and content creator with a focus on food, drink and her Cantonese heritage.

Amy Lo is journalist and content creator with a focus on food, drink and her Cantonese heritage. Her work has been featured in the Guardian, Metro and Pit magazine, and her debut book 'Have You Eaten Dinner Yet?' is out in 2023 published by Saturday Boy Books.

Amy Lo is journalist and content creator with a focus on food, drink and her Cantonese heritage.

Amy Lo is journalist and content creator with a focus on food, drink and her Cantonese heritage. Her work has been featured in the Guardian, Metro and Pit magazine, and her debut book 'Have You Eaten Dinner Yet?' is out in 2023 published by Saturday Boy Books.
Start of spring

Chinese New Year is an important celebration not only for the Chinese population, but also for those all over Asia, including in Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to name but a few. It’s therefore now more widely also known as Lunar New Year, as the traditional calendar within these cultures is based on the movements of the moon. That means that unlike western holidays, which are dictated by the solar (Gregorian) calendar, there is no set date for Lunar New Year; it instead changes every year. The holiday is also sometimes known as the Spring Festival, as it celebrates the first day of spring, along with everything that comes with it – fresh starts and new beginnings. Celebrations last for fifteen days from the start of the new year itself, finishing on the first full moon year of the year. This year, Lunar New Year is on January 22nd as we enter the year of the rabbit.

While historically Lunar New Year has predominantly just been celebrated by the Asian population in the UK, with society now embracing different cultures and their traditions more than ever before, an increasing number of British people are choosing to mark the celebrations themselves. Food plays a vital role in Lunar New Year celebrations and though many of the dishes traditionally served are now widely recognised in the UK, there are deeper meanings behind each dish, which people may be less aware of. Chinese culture, and Asian culture more broadly, is steeped in symbolism, and their food is no different, especially during the new year when these symbolic dishes are eaten to bring in good luck and fortune for the year ahead.

Full circle

While roast duck or duck pancakes are a popular choice during Lunar New Year, fish or chicken tend to take centre stage, as red meats take a back seat. Fish served on the bone is something that makes a regular appearance on the dinner table of Chinese families, but especially so at New Year. Both chickens and the fish are served complete, with the heads and tail left on to represents wholeness, and to signify a beginning and end, as a fresh year rolls around. The word fish in Chinese also rhymes with the word for surplus, so it is tradition to eat some of the fish on New Year’s Eve and then save half of it for the following day – quite literally transferring surplus food into the New Year. Although you might expect tofu to play a part, it should be avoided at all costs at Lunar New Year, as its white colour signifies death and is also the shade typically worn at funerals.

A tray of sweet snacks is displayed during this special time, which is either circular or octagonal in shape, so that it can house eight different sweets. This is because the number eight is regarded as highly lucky within Chinese culture, and each one of these sweets represents something different to bring into the new year. There’s candied melon which represents good health and growth, kumquat for prosperity, and coconut, which represents togetherness. Melon seeds are dyed red for joy and sincerity, while peanuts represent a long life. Lychee nuts are said to bring strong relationships with your family, and lotus seeds will ensure you'll have plenty of children, with well-behaved sons if you eat longan (a type of fruit similar to lychee)!

Wealth and health

Oranges and tangerines are often displayed at home or given as a gift during Spring Festival. They signify good fortune and happiness, and keeping the leaves intact on the tangerines means that relationships will also stay secure. The word for tangerine in Chinese sounds like the one for gold, meaning that they’re also associated with wealth. Foods that are round, including everything from clams and scallops to mushrooms and dumplings, are thought to resemble the shape of a coin and therefore bring prosperity.

Like many other celebratory occasions, special or extravagant dishes that wouldn’t be consumed day to day, are reserved for Lunar New Year, such as abalone, crab and shrimp roe. Shark fin soup used to be a regular luxurious dish during the festivities but, since the fishing of sharks was banned in the Atlantic Ocean in 1993 and the importing and exporting of shark fins was banned by the UK government in 2022, imitation has now become more popular. These imitation soups typically use substitutes such as agar-agar or a type of squash called fig leaf gourd to give the impression and texture of the translucent, thin shreds of shark fin.

Lunar New Year is by no means all about meat and fish though, there is always a bounty of vegetables present at celebrations, especially as vegetarianism is one of the teachings of Buddhism (the word for vegetarian in Chinese actually means Buddha’s Delight). Crunchy black fungus, which has a literal translation of Wood Ear or Cloud Ear Fungus, is eaten for wealth, while bamboo shoots may also be served as bamboo is revered for its qualities of strength and longevity. Long strands of noodles meanwhile, are served uncut during Lunar New Year to represent long life.

Lobster is a luxurious dish to serve but is also thought to bring energy and spirit to those who eat it. It’s also particularly desirable thanks to the hue of its shell, red being a lucky colour in Chinese culture. Another type of seafood you might find on the table is prawns, as the word for them Chinese is pronounced as ‘ha’, similar to the sound of laughter – the idea being that you’ll be laughing into the new year with happiness.

Many of these dishes are universally consumed during Lunar New Year, with their symbolism shared by all the different countries celebrating Spring Festival but that’s not to say that there aren’t also many other items, outside of the ones mentioned, that are equally important to specific regions or countries, with their own specific meanings. What is clear however, is that regardless of where you celebrate Lunar New Year, the food served on the day is about far more than nourishment, it’s about fortune, family, prosperity and good health, and that’s why it forms such an important part of celebrations around the world.

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