6 lucky dishes for Spring Festival reunion dinner this Lunar New Year’s Eve, from Buddha’s delight and longevity noodles to sticky rice cake and spring rolls
The countdown has begun: it is almost Lunar New Year, which for many means counting down until the reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve.
Some may call it superstition, but for the billions celebrating Lunar New Year, our Spring Festival is a time to gather loved ones and enjoy auspicious foods for a prosperous, happy and safe year ahead.
What makes these dishes auspicious includes the presentation, the pronunciation of the words that make up their names and how the ingredients are symbolically prepared to bring luck into the lives of those who feast on them.
And after the pandemic-ravaged year we have all had, we could definitely use some extra luck, right? So why not eat foods that are thought to bring us longevity, good fortune and prosperity for 2021?
In various Chinese dialects, the word for fish is a homophone for “surplus” or “leftovers”, and so no Lunar New Year feast is without a whole fish. Unlike Western cultures, the fish should always be whole – with its head and tail still intact – symbolising an abundant year ahead. The fish is usually prepared simply steamed and with the head facing the most esteemed elder seated at the table. Be sure to leave some of the fish uneaten (with leftovers enjoyed on New Year’s Day) to ensure extra luck remains with you throughout the year too.
Hair vegetable and Buddha’s delight
Lo han jai, affectionately known as Buddha’s delight, is a dish made of 18 different vegetarian ingredients all gently braised together. Chinese grandmothers will tell you that the dish was invented by monks who gathered together to honour their ancestors, with 18 monks tossing in their favourite ingredients to make one giant meal as a sacrifice during Lunar New Year.
Ingredients for a traditional Buddha’s Delight are always auspicious in their phonetic pronunciations. Hair vegetable, for instance, is fat choi in Cantonese, which sounds like “good fortune” and so is an important ingredient for those who want it.
Spring rolls may be universally known as a cheap and cheerful Chinese takeaway staple, but they are actually enjoyed by families during Lunar New Year too – especially in Jiangxi and Fujian in China. Just like the spring rolls you find at dim sum in Hong Kong, the cigar-shaped rolls are filled with lucky vegetables like bamboo shoots to bring luck and good fortune. Golden fried spring rolls also look like gold bars to signify wealth.
Oranges, tangerines and pomelos
The word for tangerine in Chinese – cheng – phonetically sounds the same as “good fortune” or “success”, and so oranges are not only presented to ancestors at temples when families visit during Lunar New Year celebrations, but they also eaten and exchanged among relatives. Round and orange in colour, citrus fruits also symbolise fullness and wealth. The word for pomelo – you – also sounds like “to have”, so eating the zesty fruits brings additional luck and good fortune for those seeking it in a fruit basket.
For a safe and healthy year, a bowl of noodles should be on the table too. The length is important, so the cook should make sure they do not break any noodle strands during the cooking process to ensure those dining on the dish will have a long life ahead.
My favourite way to serve them is braised with other lucky ingredients like bamboo shoots, napa cabbage and wood ear, which also are lucky foods because of how their names are pronounced and how they grow – onwards and upwards, shooting up into the sky and always reaching for more!
Sticky rice cake
No Lunar New Year dinner is complete without something sticky like a sweet rice cake for dessert. Made simply with brown sugar, rice flour and water, glutinous rice cakes are sticky in texture, which means the family will “stick” together and remain close during the year. The pronunciation of rice cake in Chinese is nian gao, which loosely means, “having a high year” too. Nian gao is usually presented with a red date in the middle for additional luck.
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