Chinese New Year Food and Recipes

Understanding the symbols of food special to Chinese New Year

Given the importance of food in Chinese culture, it is not surprising that certain dishes play a major role in Chinese New Year celebrations. "Lucky" foods are served through the two-week Chinese New Year celebration, also called the Spring festival.

What gives a certain food symbolic significance? Sometimes it is based on appearance. For example, serving a whole chicken during the Chinese New Year season symbolizes family togetherness. And noodles represent a long life (an old superstition says that it's bad luck to cut them). 

On the other hand, a food may have special significance during Chinese New Year because of the way the Chinese word for it sounds. Tangerines and oranges are passed out freely during Chinese New Year as the words for tangerine and orange sound like luck and wealth, respectively. And let's not forget pomelos—this large ancestor of the grapefruit signifies abundance, as the Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the word for "to have."

From appetizers to dessert, these recipes all feature foods that are considered to be lucky in Chinese culture. They are especially popular during the Chinese New Year season, but you can enjoy them all year long!

  • 01 of 11


    Chinese Pork Dumplings
    Lauri Patterson/E+/Getty Images

    These round dumplings signify family reunion. In northern China, families traditionally spend New Year's Eve together preparing the dumplings, which are eaten at midnight. One lucky person may find a gold coin inside! Crescent-shaped Jiaozi is a symbol of wealth and prosperity because of their resemblance to ancient Chinese money (silver ingots).

  • 02 of 11

    Spring Rolls, Egg Rolls and Clam Sycee

    Spring Rolls With Pork and Shrimp
    Calvert Byam/Moment/Getty Images

    Spring rolls, egg rolls, and clams symbolize wealth—clams because of their resemblance to bouillon, and spring rolls and egg rolls because their shape is similar to gold bars. 

    Clam Sycee (named after sycee, a type of gold or silver currency used in imperial China) is a clam that is steamed, then the meat is chopped and mixed into a stuffing and placed back in the shell. The whole clam is either deep-fried or stir-fried.

  • 03 of 11

    Lettuce Wraps

    Chicken Lettuce Wraps
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    The Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like rising fortune, so it is common to serve lettuce wraps filled with other lucky food. To turn this into an even more symbolic dish, substitute dried oysters for the chicken meat (dried oyster sounds like the word for "good").

  • 04 of 11

    Lion's Head Meatballs

    Lion's Head Meatballs on Noodles
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    Lion's head meatballs is a visually appealing dish from Shanghai consisting of oversized meatballs with bok choy "manes." The lion represents power and strength in Chinese culture, while the oversized meatballs symbolize family reunion.

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  • 05 of 11

    Peking Duck

    Peking Duck Rolls
    Smneedham / Getty Images

    Duck symbolizes fidelity in Chinese culture. Peking duck has a long history ​and could be found on the Ming Dynasty imperial court menu. By the mid-20th century, it became a national symbol of China. It is known for its thin, crispy skin and tender meat.

  • 06 of 11

    Sweet and Sour Pork

    Sweet and sour pineapple pork recipes
    imagenavi/Getty images

    This dish is popular with families hoping for a lot of grandchildren, as the Cantonese word for "sour" sounds like the word for grandchild. This style of cooking with sauces is popular in Cantonese cuisine.

  • 07 of 11

    Steamed Whole Fish

    Steamed Whole Red Snapper
    Jessica Boone/Photodisc/Getty Images

    The word for fish, "yu," sounds like the words both for wish and abundance. As a result, on New Year's Eve, it is customary to serve a fish at the end of the evening meal, symbolizing a wish for abundance in the coming year. For added symbolism, the fish is served whole, with head and tail attached, symbolizing a good beginning and ending for the coming year.

  • 08 of 11

    Jai (Buddhist New Year's Day Vegetarian Dish)

    Buddha's Delight
    Westend61 / Getty Images

    Also known as Buddha's Delight, this popular New Year's day dish is loaded with symbolism. It is a Buddhist tradition that no animal or fish should be killed on the first day of the lunar year. Vegetables are considered to be purifying, and many of the ingredients in this dish, from lily buds to fungus, have their own special significance. 

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  • 09 of 11

    White Cut Chicken

    Chinese White Cut Chicken
    btrenkel / Getty Images

    Serving a whole chicken symbolizes wholeness and prosperity. White cut chicken is a whole chicken that has been poached in a broth, therefore resulting in a sort of colorless dish, but fortunately also a meat that is flavorful, moist and tender.

  • 10 of 11

    Longevity Noodles

    Longevity Noodles
    Pixabay/CC BY 0

    Longevity noodles symbolize a long life, so be sure not to cut them! Longevity noodles are often stir-fried, presenting quite a challenge to the cook. This recipe keeps it simple by serving an egg drop soup over the noodles.

  • 11 of 11

    Nian Gao

    Glutinous rice flour cake
    Getty Images/MelindaChan

    Cakes have a special place in Chinese New Year celebrations. Their sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life, while the layers symbolize rising abundance for the coming year. Finally, the round shape signifies family reunion.

    According to custom, sticky cake (Nian Gao), is a steamed fruitcake that is fed to the Chinese Kitchen God so that he will report favorably on a family's behavior when he returns to heaven before the start of the New Year.

    For those of you who are uncomfortable with steaming a cake, try baked Nian GaoTurnip cake is another cake traditionally enjoyed during the New Year season.