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The Symbolic Meanings of Chinese New Year Foods

The Chinese New Year, aka the Lunar New Year is a time of celebration and welcoming of good fortune and prosperity. It started last Thursday, February 19 (Year of the Sheep). Food is a very important part of celebrating Chinese New Year and here is everything you need to know, including the symbolic meanings of traditional Chinese New Year foods and where to get them in Chinatown.

Chinese New Year Banquet:

Many Chinese traditions have at their root a homonym, the sound of a character sounding like another Chinese word and thus taking on its meaning. This becomes apparent at the banquet table as it is believed that what you eat will affect the coming year. At a traditional Chinese New Year banquet, there are 8 courses, as the word for eight sounds like “grow”. Most families do not prepare these meals at home but they instead often enjoy their celebration at restaurants such as Fuleen Seafood Restaurant (11 Division St), Mandarin Court (61 Mott St), Ping’s Seafood (22 Mott St), Golden Unicorn (18 East Broadway), Feng Cheng Yuan Restaurant (100 Bowery) and Amazing 66 (66 Mott St).

Some traditional courses are:

Shark Fin Soup – A symbol of prosperity and wealth, as its very expensive.

Noodles – Symbolizes longevity and a long life.

Abalone (Bau Yu) – A delicacy and the word for abalone, “Bau Yu” sounds like “guaranteed wealth”.

Chinese Broccoli – A symbol for jade, which brings good health and youth

Sea Bass – The word for “whole fish”, “Yu” sounds like abundance and serving a sea bass whole symbolizes togetherness as well as reproduction.

Chicken with ginger and scallions – A chicken symbolizes prosperity and on the table it is often served whole, with feet and head intact, for a good start and finish for the year. It is also often served with a lobster to represent the dragon and the phoenix.

Bird’s Nest Soup – A unique dish served as a dessert. It is said to bring long life, youth and beauty. Birds’ nests are often given as gifts and they can be quite costly, up to $1000.00. The recipe requires pieces of a bird’s nest, coconut milk and sugar. Alternatively, a sweet red bean soup can be served as well as a dessert.

Shark Fin Soup

Chinese New Year Snacks and Treats:

Nian gao – A steamed sticky rice cake, often sweetened with dates and brown sugar. The word gao sounds like the word for higher and thus by eating it you can expect to advance in the New Year. You can find this treat here: Lucky Star Super Coffee (48 Bowery)

Taro root cakes – These cakes are eaten as symbols of rising fortune and prosperity. Similarly, another popular treat are sesame seed balls, as they symbolize growing fortune, because this pastry grows as it cooks. These sweets can be found at various bakeries such as the Lung Moon Bakery (83 Mulberry St).

Almond Cookies – A popular treat and our favorite are from the Nom Wah Tea Parlor (13 Doyers St).

Tangerines – They are given in pairs and favored as the word for them, gut jai, sounds like luck and they also resemble gold, symbolizing wealth. You will find these at all of the fruit stalls in Chinatown, our favorite are located on the corner of Mulberry and Canal Streets.

Jiaozi pork dumplings – In Northern China, these dumplings are eaten in Chinese New Year as they resemble gold coins for prosperity. It is said that the more dumplings you eat the more money you will earn in the next year. You can get these tasty treats at Tasty Dumpling (42 Mulberry St).

It is also common for families also to have an eight-sided tray symbolizing family togetherness and consisting of dried fruit or candy, each with their own symbolic good fortune. It is traditionally set out for visitors with melon seeds for fertility and wealth placed in the center, often Chinatown grocery stores prepackage and sell these trays. A great grocery store is: Hong Kong SuperMarket (157 Hester St). Also, to pick up candies and dried fruit, we recommend Aji Ichiban (37 Mott St).

Almond Cookies

For more information, check our DNAinfo’s guide and our guide to Chinese New Year.