Lunar New Year, celebrated in many countries in East Asia, begins on 11-12 February this year, marking the first new moon of the lunar calendar. 2021 will be the Year of the Ox.
Chinese New Year, traditionally marked by colorful parades, fireworks, and elaborate dragon dances, is perhaps best-known, but Lunar New Year is celebrated in Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam (where it’s called Tet), Korea (known as Seollal) and beyond.
Family and feasting are vital to Lunar New Year, and many of the celebratory banquet foods have symbolic meaning:
Chef and author Eileen Yin Fei-Lo says, “A fish must always be served in the latter part of a New Year’s banquet, because a fish, any fish, symbolizes reproductive powers and therefore is at this particular time of the year representative of regeneration. It is the New Year itself!”
“Like virtually all of the dishes on New Year’s Day, clams are symbolic,” says Eileen Yin Fei-Lo. “They represent prosperity; in particular, when the clams open after cooking, they vaguely resemble taels, the gold coins of past ages.”
The late food historian Yan Kit-So wrote: “For northern Chinese, jiaozi (chiao-tzu) or dumplings, which are rich in symbolism, are a must during Chinese New Year, but they are also eaten on any special occasion, even when friends and relatives gather together for a meal.
“Chinese enjoy money symbolism almost as much as nature symbolism in their food,” writes Barbara Tropp. “Spring rolls, thought to look like gold bars, are standard at New Year’s feasts, and gingko nuts are cherished for their likeness to silver taels [coins], are all in the same spirit.”
Lunar New Year is a time for family to get together and enjoy a huge, table-groaning feast. If you’re planning a celebratory meal, Ching He-Huang’s special menu, starting with Siu Mai Dumplings and finishing with Chinese Egg Custard Tarts, covers all the bases.