Chinese New Year Recipes

Understanding the Symbolic Meanings of Food Special to this Holiday

Given the importance of food in Chinese culture, it is not surprising that certain dishes play a major role in Chinese New Year celebrations. Foods that are considered lucky or offer good fortune are part of the menu, as are ingredients that in Chinese sound similar to other positive words; in addition, certain dishes are served throughout the two-week celebration based on their physical appearance.

For example, tangerines and oranges are passed out freely during Chinese New Year as the words for tangerine and orange sound like "luck" and "wealth" respectively. Also prevalent are pomelos; this large ancestor of the grapefruit signifies abundance, as the Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the word for "to have."

Sometimes the significance is based on the food's appearance; 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.

From appetizers to dessert, there are several recipes that 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

    Jiaozi (Dumplings)

    Chinese Pork Dumplings
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    These round dumplings have two meanings. First, they signify family reunion; in northern China, families traditionally spend New Year's Eve together preparing the dumplings, which are eaten at midnight. Second, the crescent shape of jiaozi symbolizes wealth and prosperity because of the resemblance to ancient Chinese money (silver ingots). One lucky person may even find a gold coin inside!

    Jiaozi can be filled with ground pork or beef and always feature vegetables, such as bamboo shoots, Napa cabbage, and green onion. The dumplings are flavored with ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic.

  • 02 of 11

    Spring Rolls and Egg Rolls

    Spring Rolls With Pork and Shrimp
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    Spring rolls and egg rolls symbolize wealth because their shape is similar to gold bars. These spring rolls are filled with shredded pork and shrimp, as well as black mushrooms, mung bean sprouts, and garlic chives, but you can make a with just vegetables if you like. The filling is seasoned with a sauce of oyster sauce, Chinese rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil before being rolled inside the spring roll wrapper and fried. Dip into hot mustard or plum sauce.

  • 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 ingredients. Shredded chicken is alongside green onion, red pepper, water chestnuts, and celery, seasoned with garlic and ginger, and tossed in a sauce of oyster sauce, soy sauce, dry sherry, and sugar. To turn this into an even more symbolic dish, substitute dried oysters for the chicken meat, since 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. The meatballs are made of pork, seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, and sherry and simmered in a chicken broth-soy sauce mixture along with the bok choy until everything is tender and cooked through.

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  • 05 of 11

    Peking Duck

    Peking Duck Rolls

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    Duck symbolizes fidelity in Chinese culture, and Peking duck has a long history, found on the Ming Dynasty imperial court menu. By the mid-20th century, it became a national symbol of China. This dish is known for its thin, crispy skin and tender meat. The trick to achieving this end result is to hang the duck in a cool, windy spot for several hours before cooking, basting it with flavored hot vinegar water about halfway through. The duck is often served rolled in Mandarin crepes with hoisin sauce.

  • 06 of 11

    Sweet and Sour Pork

    Sweet and sour pineapple pork recipes
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    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, as is the use of ketchup in the sweet and sour sauce. Pork tenderloin is cut into cubes and marinated in a flavorful mixture for under an hour before being stir-fried with bell peppers and pineapple. The sweet and sour sauce is added to the wok at the end of cooking time to heat through and coat the ingredients well.

  • 07 of 11

    Steamed Whole Fish

    Steamed Whole Red Snapper
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    The word for fish, "yu," sounds like the Chinese words for both "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 the head and tail attached, representing a good beginning and ending for the coming year.

    This recipe calls for salted black beans that are mixed with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil and rubbed on the inside and outside of the whole fish. The fish is steamed until tender and flakes easily with a fork and finished with a garnish of curled green onions.

  • 08 of 11

    Jai (Vegetarian Stir-Fry)

    Buddha's Delight

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    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, and vegetables are also considered to be purifying. Many of the individual ingredients in this dish, from lily buds to fungus, also have their own special significance. The vegetables are stir-fried in a rich sauce of mushroom soaking liquid, rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil, making for a filling and satisfying meal.

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  • 09 of 11

    White Cut Chicken

    Chinese White Cut Chicken

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    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 meat that is flavorful, moist, and tender. The chicken is simmered and then left to sit in the liquid for several hours off of the heat. You can add some green onion as a garnish for color, and serve with a red vinegar on the side.

  • 10 of 11

    Longevity Noodles

    Longevity Noodles
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    Longevity noodles symbolize a long life due to their extended length, so be sure not to cut them! Longevity noodles are often stir-fried, so keeping them intact can present quite a challenge to the cook. This recipe keeps it simple by serving an egg drop soup over the noodles. The thin noodles are par-boiled and then topped with a simple broth of chicken stock, soy sauce, and sesame oil with a cooked egg.

  • 11 of 11

    Nian Gao (Sticky Cake)

    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.

    Steaming a cake can be unchartered territory for many, so this baked nian gao recipe simplifies it by cooking it in the oven. Turnip cake is another dessert traditionally enjoyed during the New Year season.