The Dos and Don'ts of Chinese New Year Banquets
For many in Asia, Saturday, January 28th marks the most important day of the year. The Lunar New Year, celebrated by ethnic Chinese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese is a 23 day celebration of the upcoming spring season. As part of the Chinese population in the USA, my family celebrates the spring festival with an dauntingly large banquet, red money packets, and subsequent heartburn the morning after. Although this period is not a holiday recognized by our schools or occupations, we still think of it as a joyful time for us to get together as a family and share each other’s company.
The following guide is an insight to what my family eats on Chinese New Year. Having backgrounds from Hong Kong, Toisan, Hunan, and Beijing, our New Year’s banquet is a mix of dishes across China. It should be noted that the dishes featured in this guide cover a very small array of what can be served in a New Year’s dinner in China, let alone all the other nations that celebrate the New Year’s holiday.
Our New Year’s banquet is one that is centered around reunion, family, and unification. It is typically between 8-12 courses, served on a circular table, and shared between those we love. These banquets generally include a soup, a cold dish, a fish course, a chicken course, a noodle course, a duck course, multiple vegetable dishes, and a dessert. The menu for our banquet can be found here. Although we are relatively casual and easygoing as a family, there are still some cultural superstitions and customs we adhere to when deciding on our menu.
A typical banquet menu features both a fish and chicken course. To many in western cultures, it is daunting to see a chicken with the skin, bones, and head still attached, or to have to stare a fish carcass directly in its glossy, cold eyes. However, it is unbelievably important in our family to serve them whole. The completeness of the fish and chicken courses represents abundance, prosperity, and richness. More importantly, it is a symbol of reunion, as all the diners take portions of fish and chicken from the same plate.
These little parcels of joy are a labor of love to make, and in spite of the work, are a must in our household. In Chinese culture, dumplings symbolize “Tuan Yuan,” or reunion, as everyone must make them in order to feed a family. Each dumpling is stuffed with a meat and vegetable filling and intricately wrapped into a bite-size work of art, making them a labor intensive ordeal. There was once a time where on New Year’s day, one could walk down the streets in China and hear nothing but the thumping of cleavers, as women of the house prepared the ingredients for dumplings. Nowadays in our home, one is more likely to hear Coldplay blasting from the kitchen, and me cursing about how difficult it is to knead the dumpling wrappers. Regardless of the surrounding sounds and profanities, the family always comes downstairs to help wrap the dumplings with me. A past tradition of ours was to clean a coin and wrap it into a dumpling. It is said that whomever is most fortunate to receive the coin would have overflowing prosperity. Unfortunately, one year we went overboard and our enraged father got ten different coins in ten different dumplings and vowed the Chin family would never partake in this tradition again.
Noodles have been a vital part of our birthday and New Year’s celebrations for generations. In times of celebration, noodles must be long to symbolize longevity, and they also must be slurped. Last year, I made the New Year’s noodles from scratch using flour, duck eggs, salt water, and KanSui, which is an alkaline solution which gives the noodles a springy texture. They were tossed with seasoned homemade pork cracklins and fried garlic oil.
In many cultures rice cakes are reserved for special occasions such as the New Year’s banquet. In fact, rice cakes are called “Nian Gao” in Chinese, which directly translates to “Year Cake.” These rice cakes are made of glutinous rice, and the sticky texture represents good fortune and luck for the coming year. The ones we make are dotted with jujubes, goji berries, and sesame, and are sliced before being dipped in egg and fried.
During Chinese New Year, there are certain dishes you don’t serve for fear of bad luck and ill fortune. These foods are whole-heartedly enjoyed during any other time of year. But on Chinese New Year, these foods are avoided like the plague.
Ever since I was a child, “Zhuk,” or rice congee, was the food I craved most when I was sick. Soothing, nourishing, and economical, it is among the kings of comfort. However, in Chinese culture, congee must be avoided on the New Year. When times were tough, Chinese and other East Asian cultures relied on congee to feed the public. Congee is one of the cheapest meals to be had as it requires only a little rice and some water. Its place in Chinese history has made it a symbol of poverty, and for superstition’s sake, should not be served at a banquet.
It pains me deeply that fresh tofu is traditionally off the menu at a New Year’s banquet. It is believed that white foods such as tofu are unlucky, and foreshadowing of imminent death. Although it symbolizes bad luck, I must admit, we always serve it during the Chin family New Year’s banquet. It is simply too delicious. We figured that one slip up won’t do us any harm. It should be noted that dried and fried tofu variations are still allowed on the banquet table for they are no longer white.
Cutting Your Noodles
It may be tempting to grab a pair of scissors when helping yourself to a communal plate noodles, but you must try to resist it! In Chinese culture the length of the noodles is a symbol of longevity, and cutting them for convenience is seen as cutting one’s life short. One of the most popular noodles served on birthdays and other special occasions is called “ChangShou Mian,” which translates to “Long Life Noodle.” It becomes understandable why some noodle dishes in China are made of one extremely long noodle rather than multiple shorter strands.
Chinese New Year wasn’t always a big deal for my family. As the Lunar New Year is not a federally recognized holiday by the education system, it was difficult at times to get into the celebratory mood. On these nights my mom would throw together a simple soup or assemble the fixings for a light hotpot meal. Nowadays, the Chins will gladly produce a multi course banquet to ring in the new year. However, both of these celebrational meals were equally enjoyable, regardless of the grandeur of the food we made. Although food has become an unbelievably important part of my life, Chinese New Year was never about what was on the table. Instead it was about sharing a meal with those I most love. Even at a splendid Chinese New Year banquet, it is the aspect of “Tuan Yuan,” or reunion, I find most delicious.