Food is such an important part of Chinese culture that it not only acts as a kind of sustenance, but also extends beyond that to symbolism. Different dishes and meals can represent one’s station in life, as well as privilege.
For example, wealthy individuals might devote much of their income to their daily meals and celebratory feasts, because what they put on their plates (and the plates of their loved ones) can help cement their status as individuals.
Food, not surprisingly, is heavily symbolic in China. During Chinese New Year — perhaps the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar — specific dishes and food items are consumed as a way to usher in a prosperous coming year. Take a look at the slideshow below for what to eat this Lunar New Year!
“I consider stir-frying a form of culinary magic in which ingredients are transformed,” Grace Young writes in Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, “Their textures are enhanced, their flavors intensified and caramelized. . . The stir-fry dish brings food to life.” Lobsters are popular during Chinese New Year, because of their resemblance to the majestic dragon, an auspicious, powerful, and legendary beast in the culture. Lobster in black bean sauce, a favourite in my family, calls for fancy stir-frying, but the effort is well worth it. Be warned though, while traditional Chinese woks with round bottoms are recommended for stir-fries in China, most North American heat sources are flat. Consequently, you will want to use a modified Western-style wok that has a flat bottom — unless you like living on the (sky’s) edge! This All-Clad flat-bottomed wok is quite heavy, but works well with my gas stove. It’s big enough so that no stray pieces of food will fly out of the vessel, and its sturdy three-ply construction ensures equal heat distribution for a perfect stir-fry.
A wine master suggests pairing this lobster dish with a New World wine from New Zealand, Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc (2014). It has a tropical melon and pineapple-passion fruit nose, which fills the mouth with fruity notes and a hint of acid -- ideal for cutting the salty tang of the black bean sauce.
Eight Treasures Rice
Sweet and sticky, this colourful Chinese New Year dessert features a mixture of glutinous rice, nuts and fruits cooked together. Why “eight treasures”, then? One story suggests that a millennium ago, this dessert was created to celebrate eight legendary warriors who defeated a tyrant. Another origin story features a starving general on the run, who sustained himself throughout the winter by cooking up eight pilfered ingredients from nearby villages.
Longan / Lychee
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The consumption of fresh fruit at the Lunar New Year isn’t just healthy for you -- it also suggests starting anew. The quintessential Chinese fruits of longan (whose name means ‘dragon’s eye’ in English) and lychee look great arranged in a fruit bowl, and can be eaten post-meal as a refreshing palate cleanser. Both of these fruits possess leathery exterior ‘skins’ and translucent, juicy interior flesh, surrounding a shiny dark seed. They’re eaten for superstitious reasons, referencing family abundance and togetherness.
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This vibrant orange fruit may look similar to a tomato, but its custardy sweetness and soft flesh (tender enough to eat with a spoon!) makes fans of many first-time tasters. Often sold in boxes of 10 or more, this golden fruit, another prosperity-promising New Year’s food, makes a thoughtful host gift. Be sure to eat them once they’re fully ripened, or beware the mouth-puckering dryness you’ll experience due to tannins present in the premature flesh.
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I’ve eaten dozens of peaches in my lifetime, but only recently discovered that the beloved stone fruit originated in Northwestern China.
During Chinese New Year, enjoy the humble peach in abundance, as it symbolizes the best of the best — longevity, wealth, abundance, and good fortune through the generations.
Mandarins, Pomelos, Oranges and Tangerines
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The gold-coloured skins of citrus fruit symbolize prosperity and good luck. In fact, the Chinese words for tangerine and gold sound virtually the same. A mixture of these fruits can serve as an attractive centrepiece, as well as a wonderful after-dinner treat. (Sliced oranges are often served in lieu of traditional desserts at many Chinese restaurants.)
If you can, be sure to purchase citrus fruit with their stems and leaves on, as this represents longevity.
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Legend has it that Chinese Emperor, Shennong, “discovered” tea in 2737 B.C.E. when a tea leaf fell into his cup of boiled water. Since that time, tea has been an essential component of the Chinese table. There are hundreds of types of Chinese teas to choose from — white, green, oolong, black — all cultivated from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. With all the variety, choosing one type of tea can be a headache. Our suggestion is to choose one of each type. Here are our favourites:
White Tea: Bai Hao Yin Zhen
Green tea: Butterfly Jasmine
Oolong: Milk Oolong
Black tea: Golden Monkey
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Crispy-crunchy-salty on the outside, moist and tender on the inside, suckling pig (with the skin on) is a great party dish. There’s no point in making this labour-intensive dish yourself (it generally takes an entire day) — stick with the experts and call a Chinese barbecue restaurant to order in advance. They’ll even cut it into bite-sized pieces for you.
It pairs well with a bowl of steamed rice, but if you’re like me, you’ll nibble on a few chunks greedily before everyone sits down to dinner.
Like many Chinese traditions, dumplings are meant to bring peace to families in discord. Because the making of dumplings often demands the labour of many people (some will roll out the skins and others will make the stuffing, while those with a more delicate sensibility will put the finishing touches) the whole process is seen as the opportunity to bring together feuding individuals for a communal cause. Chinese dumplings are often made with minced pork and chives or cabbage. After the initial preparation, they can either be steamed or fried. No dumpling is complete, however, without the many dipping sauces that bring out the unctuousness of the pork.
Sweet Rice Dumplings in Dessert Soup (Tangyuan)
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A popular Chinese dessert, tangyuan are glutinous rice dumplings served in a sugary soup. You’ll find them stuffed with sweet fillings such as black sesame seeds (sesame is actually used as a flavour in confectionary fare throughout the world and not only in China), peanuts, or red bean paste.
These dumplings are often served for family get-togethers, as the term ‘tangyuan’ (“soup dumpling”) is similar to the Chinese phrase for “reunion.” These are also super-simple to put together, as you’ll be able to find ready-made tangyuan in the freezer section of any Asian grocery store.
Glutinous Rice Cake (Nian Gao or Leen Goo)
Another sweet Chinese New Year dish that promises prosperity for the Lunar New Year is the “Nian Gao,” which is a glutinous rice cake. I know, it sounds a bit savoury and not especially satisfying for all you dessert-fiends, but it’s basically the lovechild of Jell-O and caramel. The cake is so popular, in fact, that during New Year celebrations, guests will greet each other with “nian nian gao sheng,” which basically means “I hope each year will be better than the last!”
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While the lobster is considered a masculine dish, because of its association with the dragon, the chicken, a stand-in for the phoenix, is regarded as a symbol of femininity. Consequently, lobster and chicken are often served together, promising marital harmony.
Rice is truly an essential staple of Chinese cuisine. In China, when someone asks you whether you’ve eaten a meal, the phrase literally translates to, “Have you eaten rice?” Living at home, rice was the accompaniment for almost every single meal. When I moved out, my mother gave me her trusty rice cooker out of pity after she heard that I burned my first (and second) batch on the stove. I can’t believe I ever tried to make rice without it. All you have to do is add the specified amount of rice and water, press a button, and you’re done. No more burnt, crusty pans to agonize over.
Lion’s Head Meatball with Shanghainese Bok Choy
Because the lion is such a revered animal in Chinese culture, one of the most popular Chinese New Year dishes was in fact created in the beast’s likeness. In actuality, this lion head is really just delicious pork meatballs with a bok choy mane.
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