For the Chinese, the New Year holiday is as much about spending time with family as it is about sharing bountiful meals with each other.
Traditionally, the New Year holiday lasts 15 days, with the first feast beginning on New Year’s Eve. Everyone in the family comes home for the big dinner. The dishes that appear on the table will differ depending on the region of China, but there are some staples that practically every family will make.
Like turkey on Thanksgiving, fish will almost certainly be on the table at the New Year feast. Fish in Chinese (“yu”) is a homophone for the character meaning “abundance.” Thus, it’s considered auspicious to eat fish on the New Year. In my family’s tradition, the Cantonese way is to steam the fish whole with ginger and scallions. To finish, soy sauce and oil are drizzled on top.
Homophones play into many of the traditional dishes. One of my mother’s classics is braised pig’s feet, with black moss and dried oysters. The Chinese words for the latter two ingredients sound like the words for “getting rich” and “auspicious affairs.”
In northern China, where wheat is the main winter crop due to the harsh cold climate, making fresh dumplings with the whole family is a common holiday tradition. According to CiCi Li, a Chinese food expert and host of the television show “CiCi’s Food Paradise,” it’s because the dumplings resemble gold ingots used in imperial China, and thus represent wealth and good fortune.
Savory and sweet cakes of all sorts are a must-have, as the character for cake, “gao,” is found in the expression for wishing someone success in the new year (“bu bu gao sheng”). Children and adults alike munch on rice flour cakes and turnip cakes, “nian gao” (which translates to “year cake,” made with glutinous rice).
Fruits also bear significance because of their names. The word for tangerines in Chinese sounds like the word for good luck. Apples, “ping guo,” has the character “ping,” a homophone for the character meaning peace and stability.
On the 15th day of the new year—the last day of the holiday celebration—everyone eats “tang yuan,” glutinous rice dumplings with sweet fillings, like sesame paste, red bean, and peanuts, or a savory mash-up like dried shrimp, Chinese sausage, and mushrooms, depending on the region.
“Yuan,” meaning round, is also in the word for “reuniting.” Thus, the dumplings recall the spirit of the family gathering together.
Chef Oscar Toro, who traveled extensively throughout Asia before becoming executive chef at Jue Lan Club, got invited into many local friends’ homes to learn their family recipes. He incorporates those influences into his restaurant’s Chinese New Year menu.
In each country where Toro has gone—Cambodia, Laos, Hong Kong, and the Philippines among them—the Chinese communities there are constantly bringing new and old traditions to the dinner table.
“It taught me a sense of family. Everybody cooks together and shares in everything,” Toro said.
One memorable dish he recalls eating in Hong Kong is a “yu sheung” (raw fish) platter, where different fish are mixed with garnishes like radish, carrots, cilantro, Thai basil, and crispy shallots. The host pours a vinaigrette over the mixture, piled high. Then everyone tosses up the ingredients with their chopsticks, and munches on the goodies that fall down onto the plate.
Check out how chef–owners behind some of New York’s popular Chinese eateries are celebrating the Chinese New Year.
And try making some New Year-worthy dumplings with this recipe, courtesy of chef Toro.