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How to wrap jiaozi (1:50)

The Spirit and Symbol of Chinese New Year Foods

By James B. Young

Many cultures eat symbolic foods for the new year. Some foods are chosen because they are reminders of money, abundance, or religious symbols. But the Chinese culture adds another dimension: the way the food’s name sounds in the spoken language.

Niangaocantonese_0155Cantonese-style Niangao
Spoken Chinese is filled with what appear to be an exceptional number of homonyms -- words that sound alike but have different written meanings.  This explains apparent mysteries, such as:  Why do images of bats appear in Chinese works of art?  And why is the character for luck hung upside down in Chinese homes?  

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 table

Food aficionados are no doubt familiar with the Chinese dumplings known as “jiaozi.”
Jiaozi_0207-2Wrapped jiaozi ready for cooking
For the uninitiated, jiaozi are made from a circle of flour wrapped around a morsel of meat and vegetables and either steamed, boiled or fried.   Jiaozi are an integral part of new years celebrations for many Chinese families -- especially the North.  Their shape resembles that of ancient gold and silver ingots known as “yuan bao,” and this may be reason enough to include them in new years celebration.  But “jiao zi” was also the name of the first Chinese paper money.  And “jiao” can sound like “to hand over” – as in handing one year over to the next.  

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.   

Niangao_0172Shanghai-style Niangao
In Eastern China another popular new years delicacy is “niangao” or glutinous rice cake.  Niangao literally means “year cake,” but it can also sound like “year elevated” – implying that the new year will be better than the old.

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.

Moss_0220-1Chinese scientists suggest substituting lettuce for black hair moss (fat choy / fa cai)
The list of auspicious sounding (or shaped, or colored) Chinese foods goes on and on.  They are all candidates for a Chinese New Years feast.  Different parts of China pronounce words differently and have different customs, which leads to favoring different foods.  But the result is the same: Whether it is shape, color, or sound, the foods selected represent the wish for a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year.  


Comments from Readers

  1. 31bc18b6032074d0fb8a49fb47ee8889
    Roy Okano on 2/4/2010 at 11:09pm

    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.

  2. A58efe614b36f47c3b14e41ed0ec6b0b
    Marty Nikou on 2/7/2010 at 12:09pm


    Your food story makes my mouth water! Thank you for sharing this awesome Chinese food review.
    Keep us posted.
    One down, ten thousands more to go...

    "koon-hee fat-chooy:)"

  3. Ac3be85254e5bd62e786daac10ae84f4
    Aaron on 2/10/2010 at 9:33pm

    I love Chinese New Year food!!

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