What do Chinese eat during the Spring Festival?

Dec 30th is New Year’s Eve, and it is a time when families get together to have dinner. The dishes are rich and people express their wishes through the foods they prepare. Firstly, the dishes prepared should be in even number, never in odd, because odd means difficulties in the coming year. Secondly, fish and hotpots are two “auspicious foods” to have at the dinner table. Fish is a homophone to the word “surplus” in Chinese. So it is a good omen to leave the bones, head and tail intact, symbolizing a good beginning and end in the coming year. A steaming hot pot means prosperity and growth. Thirdly, people having chicken for dinner is lucky, as the word chicken is a homophone for ‘accumulate’ in Chinese.

In China, people from the north and the south have different habits about the foods they eat during the Spring festival. Among them, the most popular food in South China is Niangao. While in North China, the most common one for the Spring Festival is Jiaozi.

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“Nian gao”, or “New Year Cake” is a sweet sticky brown cake made of rice flour and sugar. In Chinese, “gao” is a homonym for “high”, and “nian” means “year”. “Nian gao” is a homonym for “higher each year” and symbolizes improvement in life year by year. Their sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life and the round shape signifies family reunion.

I’m sure Jiaozi or dumpling sounds familiar to many friends. They symbolize the New Year and the old year meeting in the first hour of the day. The shape of a dumpling looks like a gold ingot-money in ancient China, which expresses a wish for a rich year.

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Dumplings consist of a meat and/or vegetable filling warpped into a thinly rooled piece of dough, which is then sealed by pressing the edges together. Common dumpling meat fillings include portk, mutton, beef, chicken, fish, and shrimp which are usually mixed with chopped vegetables. Popular vegetable fillings include cabbage, scallion(spring onions), and Chinese chives. Sometimes, candies are stuffed inside the dumplings as a wish for a sweet life; and a sanitized coin may be placed in one of the dumplings. Whoever bites the coin will have good fortune in the coming year. Dumplings are eaten with a soy sauce-based dipping sauce that may include vinegar, garlic, ginger and sesame oil.

Making dumplings is really a teamwork. Usually all family members will join the work. Some people started to make dumplings when they were kids, so most Chinese know how to make dumplings. I bet you can make it as well after some practice. Before I led my groups to the hotel in Xian where the chief would teach them how to make dumplings by demonstration, some people can make beautiful dumplings then and there. That’s really an exciting experience when travelling in China!

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People eat “tang yuan” during the Lantern Festival on lunar Jan 15th. Tang yuan is round and made of sticky rice flour filled with sweet or savory stuffing. It symbolizes family unity, completeness and happiness.

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Spring rolls are also popular. They symbolize wealth, because their shape is similar to gold bars. When having spring rolls, people eat the entire roll from one end to the other, symbolizing that everything in the coming year will end in success.

Sugar and nuts are also necessary for the Spring Festival. Generally speaking, sugar, melon seeds, earthnuts, dried persimmon cakes, oranges and apples should be prepared. Sugar symbolizes “sweetness” in the New Year; melon seeds, “many descendants”; earthnuts, “health and long life”; dried persimmon cakes, “achieve what one wishes”; oranges, “luck and wealth” and apples, “safety”. Another special snack in northern China is the “Sugar-coated Haw”, a sweet and sour taste that symbolizes family unity and happiness.

Related article: What is Chinese Spring Festival?

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