While many people know that the Chinese New Year's Eve dinner is one of the most important events of the year for the great majority of Chinese people, what is actually eaten at this big meal may still confuse non-Chinese.
Dumplings? Zongzi? Tangyuan? Mooncakes?
In a country that boasts a huge variety of delicious foods and snacks, even the Chinese themselves are not unified in the way they celebrate the Lunar New Year. But one thing in common is that the meaning behind each dish matters just as much as the taste.
In this article, the Global Times would like to give a brief introduction to some of the typical foods and customs seen during the Chinese holiday in four regions around the country.
Beijing, the capital of China, may not be able to speak for the whole nation on what to eat, but it is a capable representative for a number of northerners.
Jiaozi, or dumplings, are the first things to come to most people's minds when talking about special Chinese New Year foods in Beijing and other areas in northern China. However, instead of being served as a dinner dish, dumplings are more often prepared after the New Year's Eve dinner and eaten for breakfast the next morning.
In fact dumplings are essential for many other important occasions in a Beijing family's lives, such as Dongzhi (the winter solstice that usually falls around December 21 to 23), Toufu (the first day of three 10-day periods during the hot summer season that usually falls in July), and the time when a person leaves home for an extended period of time.
There are many legendary tales behind dumplings, but there are three in particular that go hand-in-hand with Chinese New Year.
First, the word for dumplings, jiaozi (饺子), has the similar pronunciation to another word jiaozi (交子), which means the changeover from one year to another. Second, the shape of a dumpling looks like an imperial tael used for money before the modern era, therefore eating dumplings represent wishes for a good financial future. Third, since Chinese dumplings contain fillings, the Chinese believe dumplings are able to also contain all their best wishes and fortune as well. Along this line of thinking, some families will hide a sweet date in one of the many dumplings they make that day; whoever ends up eating that special dumpling is believed to be the luckiest person in the group during the rest of the year.
Aside from dumplings, fish and meatballs are also important dishes for Chinese New Year. The pronunciation of the word fish, yu, sounds similar to the word for "extra," while one type of meatballs known as sixi wanzi (four happiness meatballs) represent the four blessings: fu (fortune), lu (emolument), shou (longevity), and xi (happiness).
Guangzhou, Guangdong Province
Let's head from North China to the city of Jieyang in South China's Guangdong Province, where the Chinese New Year is celebrated a bit differently.
While fish is a shared dish on a Cantonese dinner table, southern Chinese seldom eat dumplings during Chinese New Year. Dishes using lettuce, shrimp, pigs' feet and sea cucumber are some of the more preferred menu items.
One dish combining lettuce and pigs' feet together is known as facai jiushou (wealth in hand), which represents wishes for having plenty of money. Another dish involving cooked sea cucumber and pigs' feet is called dexin yingshou which roughly translates to "what the heart wishes one's hands can accomplish." In Cantonese, the word for shrimp has the same pronunciation as the onomatopoeia for laughter and therefore represents happiness.
But one thing a non-Cantonese should bear in mind if you ever prepare an important dinner for locals is that you should never have squid on the table since fried squid is slang for "get fired."
The differences between southerners and northerners are not only limited to the foods they eat but also the greetings they use during the Chinese New Year. While "guo
nian hao" (Happy New Year) is more commonly used among northerners, southerners like to say "gongxi facai" (May you be happy and prosperous).
The importance of prosperity is seen represented in dishes, as well as local songs played during Chinese New Year. Even overseas Chinese in Southeast Asian countries place a lot of emphasis on wealth during Chinese New Year, which may due to the historical background that most Chinese in that area were businessmen and therefore naturally would want their businesses to succeed during the new year.
Suzhou, Jiangsu Province
Suzhou in East China shares more customs with Guangzhou than Beijing.
For example, people in Suzhou eat more rice-based food than dishes made from wheat. For Chinese New Year's Eve dinner, niangao (rice cake) is a very important dish since its name has a similar pronunciation to the saying niannian gaosheng - to be promoted to a higher position year after year. Also, balls made from glutinous rice flour containing either meat or sweet fillings are often served for the breakfast on the first day of the Lunar New Year. These special dumplings are called tangtuan or tangyuan in Suzhou, both tuan and yuan mean unification in Chinese, so represent a family coming together for the holidays.
Rice is very important to the people of Suzhou, so everyone is sure to have a bowl of rice with their Chinese New Year's Eve dinner. In fact, the dinner is called nianyefan (lit: year night cooked-rice) in Chinese, and the local people believe one should never finish this meal without eating rice. Also, each family likes to prepare more rice than they can eat that night so as to ensure they will have extra rice left over, as this symbolizes that the year will be a prosperous one and that they will have plenty of rice to eat.
Braised pork shoulder is another important dish. Called tipang by locals, the dish's name sounds similar to what you would say to wish someone a promotion.
Spring rolls are also an essential dish for families in Suzhou. Spring rolls with sweet red bean filling represent wishes for a sweet new year, while those with salty vegetables inside are eaten to welcome the spring, since vegetables are symbols of spring.
Like Cantonese people, people in Suzhou also worship the god of wealth a lot. For instance, every family sets off fireworks and firecrackers on the fifth day of the first lunar month as an invitation for the god of wealth to visit their homes.
Gaotai, Gansu Province
Located 2,500 kilometers northwest of Suzhou is Gaotai, Gansu Province, a representative Northwest China city. Like other places in the northern part of China, wheat is an important staple food, but for Chinese New Year, the people here prefer noodles over dumplings.
Called latiaozi in Gansu, noodles's long shape represents wishes for a long life. Different from noodles prepared in the south, people in Gaotai prefer to eat saozi mian, a sour and spicy bowl of noodles served with minced meat and diced vegetables on top.
Even the Chinese New Year's Eve dinner has a special name here - zhuangcangfan, or the"packing the warehouse meal."
Aside from the major dishes, youguozi (puffed fritters) are one of the most popular snacks during holidays in Gansu. Made from flour, eggs, sugar and honey, the various shapes of these snacks makes them a favorite of children.
(Source: Global Times)
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