On New Year’s Eve, the most important and lavish family dinner of the year is the main event. Called the reunion dinner, it is a time when all family members return to the homes of their parents to eat and celebrate as one. Homes are decorated with the color red, symbolizing happiness and good fortune, and fresh flowers and fruit remind all that the old year is gone and spring has arrived. Families strive to prepare and serve the most sumptuous meal of the year, to usher in a new year of good luck and prosperity to all. In fact, most of the dishes served at the reunion dinner have names which sound like words for good luck, long life or wealth, or which symbolize these traits. Such homophones or ‘puns’ have traditionally determined not only which dishes will be served, but in some cases, how they will be prepared and eaten.
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The Chinese word for fish (‘Yu’) sounds like the word for ‘abundance’ or having so much that you are blessed with left-overs. A new year’s wish, ‘Nian Nian You Yu’, means ‘May you have surpluses and bountiful harvests every year.’ In the spirit of the blessing, a whole fish is served whole but only the middle portion is eaten, saving the left-over head and tail for New Year’s day. As a sign of respect, whole fish is served with the head facing the elders. The head and tail symbolize a good beginning and end of the coming year, and having left-over fish strengthens the wish for abundance to all.
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Dumplings, or Jiaozi, have been a popular Chinese food for 2000 years. Jiaozi can be made with any number of fillings, from diced meat with vegetables, seafood or strictly vegetarian, and fried, steamed, baked or boiled. During New Year’s, the dumplings are crescent-shaped, with pleated edges and turned-up ends, to resemble the shape of silver ingots; they are usually filled with pork and cabbage. To assemble a dumpling, the minced filling is placed in the middle of a round of thin-rolled dough; then the dough wrapper is folded over the filling and the raw edges are pinched together to form pleats. Better luck follows those who eat a dumpling sealed with many crimps or pleats, and the most wealth flows to the one who eats the most dumplings. In some families, a piece of white thread or perhaps a coin is added to only one dumpling. The lucky recipient of the thread is blessed with longevity, and the other gains wealth from the coin. The best time to eat dumplings is at the stroke of midnight, with a cheer to ‘ring out the old year and ring in the new!”
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Since Chinese New Year coincides with the Spring Festival, spring rolls have become a mainstay of New Year celebrations. Fried to a light golden-brown, their color and shape resembles bars of gold. Filled with delicious fresh vegetables of the new growing season, spring rolls offer the wish of a fresh start and new hope.
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Leafy greens are served whole to wish longevity to all but especially a long life for the parents. Eating a dish of quick-cooked greens is popular too for their cleansing and health-giving powers, a wise way to start the new year!
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Also known as a prosperity box, this is an 8-sided platter or round tray with 8 compartments. In each of the compartments, unique sweet and salty snack foods are offered, each possessing their own symbolic meaning. Even the number 8 is itself considered a most lucky number! The tray of togetherness is brought out to share with guests and family during the 2-week new year festival. From the tray, guests might chose candied melon for good health; lychee nuts for strong family ties; kumquats for prosperity; or coconut for friendship. Other popular offerings are lotus seeds for fertility, and candied lotus root for abundance year over year, or dried red watermelon seeds for happiness and fertility. There are lots of food options for the tray of togetherness, but many of these foods are only available in the weeks leading up to New Years.
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New Year’s dinners are the favorite time to serve whole chicken or duck, complete with head and feet, to symbolize completeness and togetherness.
Noodle dishes have been popular in China for thousands of years, but no more so than at New Year’s when dishes are prepared with especially long noodles. Because they symbolize a long life, be careful not to break the noodles while eating, and risk shortening your life!
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Nian Gao, or glutinous rice cake, is a homophone for ‘increasingly prosperous year after year’, making it well-suited for the spirit of this holiday. It is always served during new year celebrations, but this popular dessert is shared at many other festivals throughout the year. By itself, rice is a symbol of prosperity and fertility, and a sweet and sticky rice cake brings the added wish that the family ‘sticks’ together. Sticky rice cake can be prepared in a variety of ways, from frying, steaming, stir-frying or boiling. But no matter how it is cooked, it brings an added bonus to the family: When offered to the old year’s Kitchen God, it sticks his mouth shut so no bad words can be said about the family!
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These citrus fruits are offered to guests throughout the New Year’s celebrations and during the reunion dinner. They are best served with a leaf or two left on the stem, which represents completeness and longevity. Their bright color symbolizes gold; ‘tangerine’ is a homophone for ‘luck’ and ‘orange’ sounds a lot like ‘wealth’. The word for pomelo also means ‘continuous prosperity’. Through their color and sound, and the Chinese love of word-play, these fruits are associated with a wish for abundance of happiness and prosperity in the coming year.
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Soup is an integral part of Chinese cuisine in all its regions. During New Year’s festivities, soup recipes are chosen for their symbolism, as are the other dishes: Birds’ Nest Soup represents longevity, or Lion’s Head soup is chosen for prosperity. Laba Zhou or Laba porridge is sometimes served, and is considered an auspicious offering to the divinities and ancestors, especially in Buddhist families. Typically consisting of glutinous rice, red beans and millet and other high-protein vegetables, even dates, laba is stewed slowly throughout new year’s eve and not eaten until the next day. Buddhist legend says that the sage Sakyamuni was saved from starvation when a shepherdess fed him Laba Zhou; his mental and physical strength bolstered by this hearty soup, he then meditated under a Bodhi tree and founded the new philosophy of Buddhism.
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