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The Symbolism Behind Chinese New Year Foods

Traditional Chinese New Year dishes include lobster and
chicken to represent the dragon and phoenix (good marriage).
Photo: flickr/megahammond


For Chinese New Year, families celebrate for fifteen days to bring good luck, long life, and prosperity into their homes. One of the most important and best parts of the celebration is the food. The Chinese greatly believe in symbolism, and each Chinese New Year dish represents something significant. The multicourse Chinese New Year banquet dinners, traditionally served family-style, includes a wide range of delicious dishes. Here is a list of some of the most popular ones and their symbolic meanings.

Bamboo Shoots – Like many foods that are served because the Chinese word for it also means something else, the word for bamboo shoots in Chinese sounds like the phrase for “wishing everything would be well.” As such, bamboo shoots are often included in stir fry dishes.

Dumplings represent wealth, so eat up!
Photo: flickr/jasonlam

Chicken – In Chinese culture, chicken forms part of the symbolism of the dragon and the phoenix (lobster is the dragon, chicken is the phoenix). Chicken represents a good marriage and the coming together of families. It’s important to serve the bird whole to highlight family unity.

Dried Bean Curd – Dried bean curd is dried tofu, and it has a unique yet pleasant texture. It is popular at New Years because the Chinese word for it symbolizes wealth and happiness.

Dumplings – Dumplings filled with pork or vegetables represent wealth because they are created in the shape of historical Chinese silver and gold ingots. Another version is round sweet dumplings made of glutinous rice; their sweetness symbolizes a sweet year and the round shape stands for family reunion.

Eggs – Eggs are dyed red for Chinese New Year as red is the color of good luck. Eggs represent fertility.

Fruit – Tangerines and Oranges – It’s common at Chinese New Year to see a plate full of tangerines and oranges. The Chinese word for tangerine sounds like luck, and the word for orange sounds nearly identical to the word for gold so oranges are eaten to promote wealth.

Long noodles equal long life, so don’t break any noodles.
Photo: flickr/EdselL

Lobster – Lobsters, or dragons of the sea, symbolize a dragon food as part of the dragon and phoenix combination for a good marriage (see Chicken). Lobsters should be cooked and eaten whole to promote unity.

Noodles – Don’t break these noodles! The long noodles symbolize a long life and breaking a strand is considered unlucky.

Peking Duck – Famous for its crispy skin and succulent meat, this tasty dish represents fidelity.

Rice Cakes (nian gao) – These rice cakes are not the American version of crispy cardboard-like health snacks; Chinese rice cakes are chewy and cooked in a stir fry dish. The Chinese word for rice cakes, nian gao, is a homonym for “higher year” so that each year your family will have a little extra money and good health.

Seeds (lotus seeds, watermelon seeds, etc.) – The Chinese eat a wide variety of snacks including many with different types of seeds in them. Seeds represent bearing many children.

Shrimp – In Chinese, the word shrimp sounds like the word for laughter. Therefore, eating shrimp is associated with liveliness and happiness.

Keep that head and tail on for good luck!
Photo: flickr/stu_spivack

Whole Fish – Cooking and eating fish as a whole is very important to the Chinese. The whole fish symbolizes a good beginning and good ending to the new year. This dish is often served at the end of the meal as the Chinese character for fish is pronounced the same way as the character for abundance (extra good luck). Fish can be served steamed, sautéed, or fried.


Wishing everyone a Happy Chinese New Year with lots of food, laughter, and good luck!


Related Post: 35+ Resources for Chinese New Year

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