Spring festival foods in China celebrate the new year with a lot of color, which is why it is known as the Chinese New Year to the non-Chinese world!
So, the festival begins on the first moon sighting of zou yue (陬月), which is the first month on the Chinese calendar known as nong li (農曆).
It is the most important festival in China.
Because of technology, the Chinese people now know when the festival starts for years before.
Meanwhile, keep in mind that the Chinese dates are different from non-Chinese dates.
For example, Chinese year always happens on the same dates in Chinese calendar but on different dates in Gregorian calendar, which is the most widely used “mainstream” calendar in the world today.
As a result, the festival usually falls somewhere between January 21 and February 20.
Finally, there are many traditional foods eaten during the festival, which lasts for 15 days.
Here are some of the popular ones.
For thousands of years, the people of China have known what it is like to be far from family.
For example, traditionally young people would leave and go to towns to find work.
Meanwhile, in the modern world nothing has changed, as large number of Chinese young people either study or work in big cities.
As a result, we end up reuniting for the Spring Festival, which is the one festival most people will try not to miss!
Because family is most important, a reunion dinner (年夜飯) is held at home, especially in the home of the most respected member of the family.
So, a reunion dinner will often be a hot pot (火鍋), which is a type of dinner where a simmering pot on the table is shared.
For example, there will be vegetables and meat around the table and you share the meal while catching up.
Therefore, a reunion dinner will prepare our body and spirit for the coming year.
New Year’s Cake
Because Chinese culture values auspiciousness, we consume foods during the Spring Festival that have similar sounding names to auspicious words or phrases, which linguistically you would say are homonyms (同音词).
In other words, these are words that sound similar but have different meanings.
For example, the real name of the new year’s cake (年糕), or nian gao, are very similar to the words “high year.”
Since nian gao is made from sticky rice, which means its real name is sticky cake, the word sticky (粘) has a similar sound to the word year (年) and the word cake (糕) has similar sound to the word high (高).
So, when we greet each other with may you have higher coming year (年年高升 or nian nian gaosheng), you can hear the name of this cake!
Therefore, eating this cake will make your income higher or your status higher in the coming year.
Fish is another food that Chinese people enjoy during the Spring Festival.
So, this is also another homonym where the word for fish (鱼) sounds like the word for surplus.
Because Chinese people don’t like to live paycheck-to-paycheck, they work hard to have some sort of savings at the end of the year.
Moreover, Chinese families face a growing number of worries in the modern world, including having to find wives for their sons in a country where the sex ration is way off.
As a result, the average Chinese family generally save about 10 times more than Americans.
Therefore, any surplus is a very good thing and so more fish!
Meanwhile, there are many traditions associated with fish eating during this festival, including what types of fishes should be eaten and even how they should be eaten.
Of course, we cannot go into all of that in this small article.
However, after eating fish, you can wish someone, surplus year after year (年年有余) or nian nian youyu.
It is a very nice wishing!
Because of the homonyms, mandarin oranges (橘子), which have the sound of “luck,” especially in southern China, they are very popular.
For example, in southern China, in the Cantonese dialect of Chinese, the phrases “giving gold” and “giving oranges” sound the same.
As a result, it is customary to gift others these oranges.
Of course, the etiquette is to easy-to-peel oranges, which is why the mandarin type are very popular.
Meanwhile, aside from gifting people you also place them in rice containers, as this will bring good luck.
Finally, we are not able to give all the details here.
For example, there are many types of oranges and different parts of China have different traditions associated with them.
So, better to let you enjoy the basics!
Whether in the south or north, Chinese people use dumplings during the Spring Festival.
Because the dumplings are shaped similar to the yuanbao (元寶), which were the gold and silver currencies used by Imperial China (see the golden items next to the dumplings above), dumplings are widely eaten as auspicious food.
Likewise, depending on the region, the fillings have meanings associated with them.
For example, in northern China, the napa cabbage (大白菜) has the same sound as wealth and is believed to bring prosperity.
As a result, using cabbage filling is very popular.
In fact, cabbage dumplings are the most popular Spring Festival foods in China!
Likewise, there are some fillings that are avoided, especially fillings that are made from foods that the poor eat.
So, enjoy a cabbage dumpling!
Spring Festival foods in China are very unique and have to do with the history of the country.
Because the festival is the most important of the year, Chinese people are very mindful of the year to come and eat foods that promote health, happiness, and prosperity.
For example, the New Year’s Cake is popular because it has words that sound like “higher new year,” which everyone likes, as people tend to be to have higher income of social status.
Likewise, eating fish is really popular also because the word fish sounds like the word for surplus, which makes it a popular prosperity dish.
Meanwhile, other important foods include dumplings, oranges, the family reunion dinner that kicks off the festival the night before.
Therefore, when you meet a Chinese person during the Chinese Spring Festival, wish them a prosperous new year.
Best greeting would be gongxi facai (恭喜发财), which means prosperous congratulations.
Of course, there is a modern greeting too.
That is, xin nian kuai le (新年快乐), which means happy new year.
May you have a prosperous year!
Li Xiu Ying is a travel writer and is the author of Beijing Travel. She writes about China for Caravanzers.