As anyone who has spent time in China can tell you, food is a very important part of any festival in the country. Of course, Spring Festival is now upon us and as the biggest festival of the year, there are of course many traditions involving which foods to eat and when. But have you ever thought why these foods are shared by everyone at these times?
Here at Cook in Shanghai, we knew of course some basics, but there not the whole story. So we thought we’d dive in and try to find the best answers of why we eat what we do to welcome the new year.
Being located in Shanghai, a city in the south of China, we have many different customs to the people of the north. During Spring Festival, the most obvious is that unlike those in the north, in the south we eat a glutinous rice cake called nian gao (年糕). Like many foods, the reason for eating this one is that its name is a homonym in Chinese for something we hope to happen in the new year. In this case nian gao, sometimes also called nian nian gao sounds like “each year higher” (年高 or 年年高) or “a more prosperous year.”
Although they are eaten all over China, fish and oranges are two more examples of foods that sound like well-wishes. The Chinese word for fish, yu (鱼), is a homonym for surplus, yu (余). So we say to each other, “May every year have yu,” nian nian you yu (年年有余). Like poinsettias at Christmas, small decorative orange trees make an appearance all over every Spring Festival. In some dialects (the Teochew dialect), the name for the orange, ju (桔), sounds like the word for luck, ji (吉).
After the Spring Festival, we have another very important festival called the Lantern Festival. It is important because it’s the first festival of the new year. During that time, we make glutinous rice dumplings called tangyuan (汤圆). The name tangyuan sounds like tuanyuan (团圆) which means to gather around, referring to the family. We will be having a networking event where you can learn to make these dumplings on the 9th and 19th of February as well!
Of course, the granddaddy of all Spring Festival foods is the dumpling. They are the most famous food but also the one with the most disputed and interesting origins.
- The shape of the dumpling is like an ancient coin, called a yuanbao (元宝) and one of the names for dumplings are also yuanbao (元包), so it symbolizes wealth in the coming year.
- Dumplings are also shaped like crescent moons, to remind us of the lunar new year.
- Because the dumplings have a stuffing, we try to stuff all kinds of good things inside in order to remind people to have high hopes for the new year.
- Like King’s Cake, we sometimes hide a coin inside one of the dumplings. If you find it, that means that you will have good fortune in the following year.
- The Chinese word for dumpling, jiaozi (饺子) also sounds like a way of saying to change times to the new (year), geng sui jiao zi (“geng sui” meaning to increase by one year, jiao to transfer over and zi being short for zishi meanig 11 PM to 1 AM or midnight; 更岁交子 where 子 means 子时).
- In ancient times, wonton were eaten instead of dumplings. It was only in the Tang Dynasty that dumplings finally took over as the new year food. In Chinese, the word for wonton is huntun (馄饨), which sounds like hundun (浑囤) meaning to have a full grain storehouse.
- Some believe that it is a reference to the Chinese creation myth of Pangushi ending the chaos times, hun zhuangtai (混状态).
- Finally, the most interesting unique reason for eating dumplings also has to do with the Chinese creation myth. This time with Nuwa, the goddess who created man from clay. When she was making the ear, she found it would easily freeze off. So to prevent that, she made a little hole on the inside and ran a string into man’s mouth so that he could bite down on it and the ear would be secure. For this reason, we make jiaozi because we fashion them to look like ears and inside they have stuffing, for which the Chinese word xian (馅) sounds like string, xian (线). We then bite them with our mouths to commemorate Nuwa’s great work.
We thought these were great and had never heard many before. Go out and see how many of your friends know these reasons.
From everyone at Cook in Shanghai, we wish you a happy and prosperous new year! Xin nian kuai le! 新年快乐!