The Spirit and Symbol of Chinese New Year Foods
By James B. Young
The answers lie in the sound of the language. In some Chinese dialects the spoken word for “bat” sounds like the spoken word for “luck.” So bats are considered good luck. Similarly, the spoken word for “upside down” can sound like the spoken word for “arrive,” so “luck” turned upside down means luck has arrived. This kind of symbolism appears throughout Chinese culture and especially for the Lunar New Year feast. (Note: Chinese dialects are tonal languages and sometimes the tone is ignored in the interest of making the association.)
For the feast, some Chinese families serve eight or nine dishes because these are “lucky numbers." The word for “eight” can sound like the word for “prosperity." The word for “nine” can sound like the word for "long-lasting."
Foods on the Chinese New Year tableFood aficionados are no doubt familiar with the Chinese dumplings known as “jiaozi.”
The Chinese word for “fish” can sound like the word for “abundance” or “surplus.” So the phrase “abundance every year” sounds like the phrase “fish every year.” To drive the symbolic point home some families cook a whole fish on new-years eve, eat half, and finish the rest on new years day.
People living near Chinese communities are probably familiar with the Cantonese saying “Kung Hei Fat Choy” (Gong Xi Fa Cai, in Mandarin). It means, “congratulations and be prosperous.” But fat choy (fa cai) also sounds like the name for black hair moss, which makes black hair moss a treasured ingredient in Chinese new years dishes. A word of caution, though, in 2007 biochemists in Hong Kong discovered that black hair moss contains the toxic amino acid BNAA, which is linked to degenerative nerve diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and dementia. They have called for a total ban on the sale of black hair moss in China. For those seeking an alternative, one scientist suggests using lettuce. Its name, sounds like “creating prosperity” in both Cantonese and Mandarin.
Comments from Readers
Wow! First class job; the sights, the sounds and the photos. Beautifully balanced. I especially liked the recipes and stories. A site to visit often.
Your food story makes my mouth water! Thank you for sharing this awesome Chinese food review.
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I love Chinese New Year food!!