Given the importance of food in Chinese culture, it is not surprising that food plays a major role in Chinese New Year celebrations. "Lucky" foods are served through the two week Chinese New Year celebration, also called the Spring festival.
Symbolic Chinese Foods
What gives a certain food symbolic significance? Sometimes it is based on appearance. For example, serving a whole chicken during the Chinese New Year season symbolizes family togetherness. Noodles represent a long life; an old superstition says that it's bad luck to cut them. Both clams and Spring Rolls symbolize wealth; clams because of their resemblance to bouillon, and Spring Rolls because their shape is similar to gold bars.
On the other hand, a food may have special significance during Chinese New Year because of the way the Chinese word for it sounds. For example, the Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like rising fortune, so it is very common to serve a lettuce wrap filled with other lucky food. Tangerines and oranges are passed out freely during Chinese New Year as the words for tangerine and orange sound like luck and wealth, respectively. And let's not forget pomelos. This large ancestor of the grapefruit signifies abundance, as the Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the word for "to have."
Fish also play a large role in festive celebrations. The word for fish, "Yu," sounds like the words both for wish and abundance. As a result, on New Year's Eve it is customary to serve a fish at the end of the evening meal, symbolizing a wish for abundance in the coming year. For added symbolism, the fish is served whole, with head and tail attached, symbolizing a good beginning and ending for the coming year.
And what about the sweet, steamed cakes that are so popular during the Chinese New Year season? Cakes such as Sticky Rice Cake have symbolic significance on many levels. Their sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life, while the layers symbolize rising abundance for the coming year. Finally, the round shape signifies family reunion.
So if you missed the fireworks and celebrations on New Year's Eve, don't worry - you'll have another chance to celebrate. Chinese New Year falls on February 7th in 2008. It is the Year of the Rat.
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