what to eat on chinese new year

Happy continuation of the New Year! As promised, I’ve got some 4-1-1 on Chinese New Year food traditions, and believe me, it was tough to come by. Tired of combing through the Internet for information, and skeptical (since you never know how accurate what you find is going to be), I decided to go straight to the source: my mom, i.e., The Boss. She’s sort of a self-proclaimed expert on (Chinese) language and culture/history.

Immediately, she berated me for not asking her prior to CNY so I could plug the specials going on at the restaurant, but seeing as you can’t change the past, I finally calmed her down enough to enlighten me. 😀

So apparently it’s customary to have fish. But this comes with a couple of caveats: It must be a whole fish comprised of both head and tail, symbolizing the need for completion of our goals — all projects must have a head and a tail. (How very true.) Also, you shouldn’t finish the fish; leftovers support the philosophy that “Year after year you must have leftovers.” Leftovers, in this context, are a homophone (the Chinese are huge on homophones, cf. the previous post on me briefly visiting room 444 at the hospital) for fish. If you can read Chinese, decipher this scribbling my mom made me during her explanation:

Dumplings, or as we sometimes call them, pot stickers, are also highly customary. The Chinese used to have highly portable (sarcasm) money made of pure gold and silver that looked like this:

. . . which I have no idea how to generally refer to (coins? Bricks?). Anyway, at the New Year it is tradition to make dumplings in the shape of these brick-coins, which of course symbolize prosperity.

(Shout-outs to the Interwebs for these pictures: Thanks, Google, for yielding me these image results of money and pot stickers.)

In Taiwan (Mama wasn’t sure if they also do this in China), they eat mustard greens that are also homophones for “long-life,” so loosely, you could call them long-life vegetables.

There’s also something she called “year cakes,” to which my father chuckled. Year cakes can be sweet (made of sweet rice, or maybe red bean) or salty (made with daikon, or maybe taro root). Incidentally, for those of you savvy in the kitchen, I found a family cooking blog of “simple Asian and Western recipes,” from which I yoinked these images: Check it out at Christine’s recipes.

You might notice there are several links between the food they eat and “lucky” words of things we are expected to bring in with the New Year, due to the homophonic nature of the Chinese language. Without getting all technical and academic on you, I’ll attempt to explain this:

To review, a homophone is a set of two or more words that sound alike but don’t mean the same thing, such as “to,” “two,” and “too.”

Chinese is comprised of one-syllable sounds, e.g., “ma,” which are made different from each other by different tones. There are five of these, so if you take any one syllable and say it in any of those five tones, you can essentially say five different words with completely unrelated meanings. (As with my oft-cited example of “four” and “death.”)

A great illustration of this is with “ma.” So I’ll walk you through the first four intonations with the syllable “ma”:

Intonation            Meaning

         1                         Mom

         2                         Numb

         3                         Horse

         4                         Scold

         5                         (Interrogative)

(An interrogative word means it emphasizes a question.)

As you can see, even though in Western languages the sound “ma” would mean the same thing no matter how you said it, in Chinese it makes a difference. So as you can imagine, if you’re not careful how you’re talking, certain words can be easily mistaken for others, thus the interest in homophones, and why so many traditions and superstitions in Chinese culture are so based in them.

Anyway, a last food tradition, one my family does at every Thanksgiving and Christmas: the hot pot.

You gather family on New Year’s Eve (you get to visit friends on CNY Day to exchange well wishes) to feast together. The hot pot is very much like fondue, where you have a large hot pot filled with broth and surrounded by uncooked, raw food that people can stick in the pot and eat as they wish.

Post-hot pot dinner, all eyes begin to sparkle because the red envelopes get busted out. Red envelopes are literally red envelopes containing monetary gifts prepared by the parents to their parents (probably retired) and their children/unemployed adult kids.

There’s a popular saying which means “Congratulations and prosperity, now give the red envelope!” which sounds a bit silly in English, but in Mandarin it rhymes:

Gōng xǐ fā cái, hóng bāo ná lái

You have noooo idea how long it took me to “fish with the head and tail on” this article — major communication blips along the way — so I think I deserve a nice break to enjoy what’s called “small eats” (I’m at Mei Shung today — come visit!).

happy new year

What better a time to write a new post for this blog than on Chinese New Year. Incidentally, that is today — for the next ten minutes, as it seems I haven’t quite mastered the beast that is time management (a resolution that invariably crops up every “Western” New Year, har har). I cheated and bought myself time by posting this early and unfinished, so that the timestamp on the blog will forever remain the correct date (I am indeed a trickster). 😉

Admittedly, all I knew about Chinese New Year up until today can be summed up with a Post-It-sized list:

  • based on the lunar calendar and lasts several days
  • begins a year of a new animal in an astrological list that cycles like the Western zodiac, though only annually
  • usually involves red envelopes, i.e. gift of cash-ola from the ’rents, and if lucky, relatives (incidentally, my dad randomly handed me a brand new fifty today, but said nothing of the holiday)
  • how to say “Happy New Year” and wish people prosperity for the new year in Mandarin: gōng xǐ fā cái and xīn nián kuài lè (yoinked from About.com, thankfully, as I never would’ve been able to transcribe that properly into Roman alphabet nor would I have ever been savvy enough to record clips of myself saying it for all the world to hear)
  • never to wash your hair on Chinese New Year, as you don’t want to wash out all your luck for the new year (Moose, on the other hand, slipped and did so this morning — whoops!)
  • oh, and this year is the year of the dragon. Last year was that of the rabbit

So thanks to my mission to educate those of you interested in Chinese and Taiwanese culture, I’m doing the same for myself in order to do so. 😛 To all the teachers and profs of my school days, fret not, as I shall always cite my sources. Just not in MLA format.

I’ll get it out of the way now. The following information on Chinese New Year (henceforth referred to as CNY) will have all been extracted for the most part from this About.com article and this Wikipedia page.

I was prowling Facebook earlier today and noticed a couple of fellow Asians had posted statuses and comments referring to it as “lunar new year” as well. This was a first for me, as I’d never realized there was a PC version of the occasion much akin to our Western “happy holidays”!

Regardless, Chinese New Year is celebrated across a number of places that are not China (which if you asked my parents, they are not from. Taiwan is different from China!), such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong (where, incidentally, a couple of our waitresses are from). It’s also the most important and longest festivity in Chinese culture.

Not as well known, CNY is also known as “spring festival,” interestingly — but the reasons for this seem widely political and I won’t go into it here. If you’re curious, hop on to this article for the explanation.

Also, the New Year celebrations begin on a new moon, most typically the second one after the winter solstice, and last fifteen days. (As it turns out, my post isn’t so late, but it still felt wrong to post it on the second day . . . call me a Twinkie. ;))

Traditionally red is a huge CNY color, as old-school legend has it that a mythical beast named Nian (also the Mandarin word for “year”) would terrorize villagers by preying on their livestock, crops, and even their children — but apparently the beast was frightened by red clothing. That’s why you’ll see tons of red lanterns, dresses, and scrolls during the CNY festivities. Additionally, the color symbolizes prosperity.

The legend of Nian includes explanations for firecrackers and drums, which were meant to scare him off (apparently he was not a fan of loud noises). Also, a phrase that means celebrating the new year happens to be “guo nian,” which word for word means “passing of Nian,” commemorating the eventual conquest of the beast.

No description of CNY would be complete without a mention of superstitions, as I’ve grown up with countless warnings of what not to do for reasons beyond logical explanation (couldn’t get my ears pierced without my grandpa calculating the best date for it — which resulted in my being eleven before it ever happened . . . and to my eternal sense of injustice, my sister being only four!) and freakouts (being placed ever so flittingly in room 444 at the hospital — more on that in a moment). I’d say Chinese culture is among the most superstitious of any I’ve ever encountered, so here’s an overview of CNY-related traditions and faux-pas:

  • red envelopes must contain crisp new bills summing up to an even number. The number should never contain the number four, as the Mandarin word for four is a homophone for the word for death (hence the complete flip-out at the hospital; I was then immediately transferred to 808 :D)
  • house cleaning should take place in the days preceding CNY, and never on the first day or first few. When you clean the house, you sweep away bad luck accumulated from the previous year and make room for new good luck (which you’d in theory sweep away on the first day if you were to defy this!). Similarly, don’t wash your hair on the first day either.
  • wear and decorate with red. Buy new clothes! CNY is all about out with the old crap and in with the new and better (not just materially, I’d wager, but the Chinese are a very symbolic bunch).
  • don’t cook. Lighting fires and using knives are considered unlucky by some, so the feasts of the New Year are prepped ahead of time. (Incidentally, I’d learned somewhere that the use of chopsticks in Chinese culture is due to this belief that knives symbolize violence — which is why all meat in Chinese cuisine is pre-cut.)

All right, it’s getting late and this is starting to be a sleepy new year for me. Stay tuned in the following fifteen days for more tidbits on CNY. Next up, traditional CNY foods. Zzz. . . . I mean, mmm. 0:)