The little-known history behind your favorite Chinese New Year foods

By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly

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With the Lunar New Year approaching, Asians around the world are looking forward to a variety of sumptuous festive foods. Many children are already drooling at their mothers’ home-made steamed cakes. Food is an essential part of the tapestry of symbols and traditions that weave the Lunar New Year. The Chinese, in particular, believe that one can bring joy and prosperity into one’s life by observing propitious practices based on custom and folklore. Let’s take a look at what is behind some of the foods.

Niangao (Chinese New Year cake)

Throughout China and other places where there are Chinese, different types of New Year cakes, or niangao, are prepared in anticipation of the Lunar New Year.

In his book, “Chinese New Year: Fact & Folklore,” William C. Hu writes that originally, gao, or pudding cakes, were “eaten not on New Year’s, but rather on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month,” called the chongyang, when there was a custom called denggao.

The origin of denggao traces back to the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). The word deng means “to mount,” whereas the word gao means “height or higher up.” The term implies “promotion” and is “a homonym for the word meaning pudding cake.”

Hence eating pudding cakes is “symbolic of attaining success in one’s career.”

Though gao was originally prepared and consumed on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month, it “became so popular that various types of [gao] were made for the celebration of a number of” holidays One type is the niangao used for the Lunar New Year.

Reinforcing this history, the 17th-century Chinese scholar Liu Tong noted in his writing that on New Year’s Day, people “ate as their most important festive food, a pudding cake,” called nianniangao, made of sweetened glutinous rice, which was steamed. Sticky to the touch, it acquired the popular name nianniangao, or “glutinous, adhesive[,] and sticky pudding cake”—which was also “a homonym for ‘becoming lofty with high hopes with each year.’”

This expression was initially used only in the palace in the Song dynasty (960–1279), but was later adopted by the general populace in their common speech.

People liked the auspicious meaning and later “abbreviated the name” to niangao, or “the pudding cake that is filled with high hopes and expectations.”

Jiaozi (dumplings)

In northern China, it is common for family members to get together to make boiled dumplings, or jiaozi, on New Year’s Eve.

Hu writes about a popular folk tale regarding jiaozi. It was originally eaten on the winter solstice rather than New Year’s. During the Han dynasty, a renowned doctor named Zhang Zhongjing returned one winter to his hometown, Nanyang, in today’s Henan province.

“The weather was extremely severe” at that time, and Zhang was concerned that the harsh condition was “detrimental to the weak, old, and especially the poor people.”

When the winter solstice came, he erected a tent in the town and inside prepared an herbal broth by boiling lamb, peppers, and other warming vegetables. After removing the lamb and herbs from the broth, he chopped and minced them and wrapped them “in a dough wrapping.” He then served the broth and dumplings to the public, and “the poor were able to avert the cold and keep in good health.”

Zhang performed this public service annually for some 30 years, and in his honor, people have carried on this tradition of having dumplings on winter solstice.

It was not until the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) that jiaozi was “established as a New Year festival food.” It was considered auspicious to consume dumplings, as they were shaped like silver ingots and “symbolic of wealth.”

Radish cake

Ian Bartholomew writes in an article entitled “New Year’s Eve dinner: easy as pie,” in the Taipei Times, that Chinese radish, chhai-thau in the Hoklo language (also known as Taiwanese), “is a homophone for ‘good fortune.’” Traditionally, radish is accompanied by dried shrimp and mushrooms in a radish cake to ensure that it is not “embarrassed because of its humble origins.”

Fat choy and oysters

Black moss, also known as hair moss, is a dried fungus “harvested in the deserts of Central Asia,” says Bartholomew. Its inclusion in a New Year’s Day vegetable medley dish or a New Year’s Eve dinner is because the name of the fungus in Cantonese, fat choy, is “a homophone for ‘get rich.’”

Fat choy ho shi, black moss and oyster stir-fry, is a popular dish served in Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year. Ho shi, oyster in Cantonese, rhymes with a good (prosperous) market.

Fish

Fish, specifically a fish served whole with its head and tail intact, plays a part in the Lunar New Year celebration. Yu, fish in Chinese, is a homonym for “abundance,” according to Rhonda Parkinson in her article,“Chinese New Year Food: Symbolic Food and Recipes to Celebrate Chinese New Year,” on about.com. Serving a fish at the end of the New Year’s Eve dinner symbolizes “a wish for abundance in the coming year.”

Oranges and tangerines

It is common for Chinese families and businesses to decorate their homes, stores, and offices with pots of tangerines during the Lunar New Year. Parkinson notes that the words for tangerines and oranges “sound like luck and wealth, respectively.”

Seeds

An assortment of seeds is served during the Lunar New Year. Lotus seeds and watermelon seeds are two examples. Seeds signify “having a large number of children,” notes Parkinson.

Noodles

Noodles symbolize “longevity in Chinese culture,” says Parkinson. Besides being a part of a traditional Chinese birthday celebration, it is served during the Lunar New Year. Some Chinese believe that the noodles served should not be cut.

Chicken

In her article “10 Chinese New Year Food Superstitions” on recipes.howstuffworks.com, Sara Elliott says that whole chicken signifies “togetherness” and family unity. In Chinese families, a chicken is served boiled or steamed with the head and feet during the Lunar New Year. Often, the family makes a symbolic offering of the chicken to ancestors because “showing respect for the past and enthusiasm for the future” is important during the New Year. (end)

For more information, visit www.chinesefood.about.com and www.recipes.howstuffworks.com and www.taipeitimes.com.

Vivian Miezianko can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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