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!).