Chinese New Year Recipes

Understanding the Symbolic Meanings of Food Special to this Holiday

Jiaozi Chinese dumpling

The Spruce Eats / Ulyana Verbytska

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 whose names in Chinese sound similar to other positive words. Tangerines and oranges are passed out freely during Chinese New Year as the words for tangerine and orange sound like "luck" and "wealth," respectively; pomelos are found everywhere as the Chinese word for them sounds like the verb "to have." In addition, certain dishes are served throughout the two-week celebration based on their physical appearance: a whole chicken eaten during the Chinese New Year season symbolizes family togetherness, and uncut noodles represent a long life.

Our collection includes recipes especially popular during the Chinese New Year season; from appetizers to dessert, these lucky foods are delicious, worth trying, and representative of Chinese culture at one of the highlight moments of its yearly traditions.

  • 01 of 11

    Spring Rolls and Egg Rolls

    Basic spring roll recipe

    The Spruce Eats/Emily Hawkes

    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 vegetable-only rolls are also available. The filling is seasoned with a sauce made of oyster sauce, Chinese rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Rolled and fried to a crunchy golden brown, these rolls are then dipped into hot mustard or plum sauce.

  • 02 of 11

    Jiaozi (Dumplings)

    Jiaozi Chinese dumpling

    The Spruce Eats / Ulyana Verbytska

    These round dumplings signify family reunion as most families spend New Year's Eve together preparing them before eating them at midnight. They also represent prosperity because their shape resembles ancient Chinese money; a gold coin is put inside of one of the dumplings for a lucky guest to find.

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

  • 03 of 11

    Lettuce Wraps

    Lettuce Wraps

    bhofack2 / Getty Images

    The Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like "rising fortune," so it's common to serve lettuce wraps filled with other lucky ingredients. Shredded chicken, green onion, red pepper, water chestnuts, celery, garlic, and ginger are 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." Iceberg lettuce is commonly used, but any leafy crunchy green with wide leaves works well.

  • 04 of 11

    Lion's Head Meatballs

    chinese lion's head meatballs in a casserole dish

    Getty Images / Lcc54613

    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 togetherness. 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.

    The meatballs are larger than the average Italian or Swedish equivalent and one or two are enough to feed one guest, as during the Chinese New Year's celebrations many dishes are expected at the table.

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    Peking Duck

    whole peking duck

    Getty Images / BJI/Blue Jean Images

    Duck symbolizes fidelity in Chinese culture, and Peking duck has a long history that can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty's imperial court menu. By the mid-20th century, this dish became a national symbol of China. Known for its thin, crispy skin and tender meat, the trick to achieving this texture is the result of many steps of boiling, hanging the duck to dry, basting, and roasting. Labor intensive, this dish is often served rolled in Mandarin crepes with hoisin sauce, or sliced in front of guests with a serving per person consisting of more crispy skin than meat.

  • 06 of 11

    Sweet and Sour Pork

    Sweet and Sour Pork

    The Spruce

    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 before being stir-fried with bell peppers and pineapple. The sweet-and-sour sauce is added to the wok at the end of cooking to heat through and coat the ingredients well.

  • 07 of 11

    Steamed Whole Fish

    steamed whole fish with scallions

    Getty Images / xia yuan

    The word for fish, "yu," sounds like the Chinese words for both "wish" and "abundance." As a result, it's customary to serve a fish at the end of the New Year's 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 months to come.

    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 then steamed until it flakes easily and is garnished with curled green onions.

  • 08 of 11

    Jai (Vegetarian Stir-Fry)

    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, and vegetables are also considered to be purifying. Many of the individual ingredients in this dish, from lily buds to fungi, 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.

    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    White Cut Chicken

    Chinese White Cut Chicken

    btrenkel/Getty Images

    Serving a whole chicken symbolizes wholeness and prosperity. This tender chicken breast is part of a whole chicken that has been poached in plain broth, resulting in a sort of colorless dish, but fortunately, also an extremely flavorful, moist, and tender one. The chicken is simmered and then left to sit in the liquid for several hours off of the heat. Most cooks plunge the chicken in iced water after it has been cooked to assure its tenderness and juiciness. Green onions are served as a garnish for color and the dish is usually served with red vinegar on the side.

  • 10 of 11

    Longevity Noodles

    Longevity Noodles

    Shawna Lemay / Getty Images

    Due to their extended length, these noodles symbolize longevity, so it's of the utmost importance 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 soft-boiled egg on top.

  • 11 of 11

    Nian Gao (Sticky Cake)

    Glutinous rice flour cake
    Getty Images/MelindaChan

    Cakes have a special place in Chinese New Year celebrations because their sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life and the often-present layers inside symbolize rising abundance for the coming year. On top, their round shape signifies family togetherness, so eating cake during the celebration is a must. 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.