Chinese culture is rich with symbolism. Homonyms (words that have the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings) are often used to link numbers and objects to a belief or custom.
One example is the number eight. It is considered lucky because the Cantonese word for eight, pronounced “baat”, sounds similar to “fatt”, which means prosperity. This symbolism extends to food too; certain dishes are eaten because their names have a special meaning. Here are eight – or “fatt” – auspicious dishes to usher in a prosperous Chinese New Year. Kung hei fat choy!
The humble rice ball is made using glutinous rice flour, which is filled with black sesame or peanut and cooked in sweet syrup. While this dessert may look plain, it plays an important role at every winter solstice and New Year gathering. Its name, pronounced “tong yuen” is associated with reunions and togetherness, while its shape signifies unity and harmony.
No traditional Lunar New Year feast is complete without fish. That’s because the word for “fish” (yu) is a homophone of “surplus” in Cantonese, signifying plenty of wealth and prosperity. Prepared in a variety of ways, it’s customary to only eat the middle part of the fish (because the expression “yau tau jau mei” which literally means “to have both a head and a tail”). The rest is eaten the next day to symbolise good luck overflowing into the next year.
As you might guess from its name, the Chinese Smiling Sesame Cookie Ball symbolises happiness and laughter. This delicious snack is made by rolling little balls of cookie dough into white sesame seeds. They are then deep-fried, which makes the dough crack open so it looks like a laughing mouth. Warning: This New Year favourite is delightfully addictive.
A family favourite, glutinous rice pudding is usually eaten on the eve of the New Year. Pronounced “nin gou”, its name literally means “getting higher year after year”, and it’s believed that eating it will help you progress in life. That could mean better grades, a new job, or even a growth spurt!
There is also an “eight treasures” version of this treat, made with lotus seed, longnan, red dates, kumquat, honey cherry, candied winter melon, shelled sunflower seeds and pearl barley. Together, these ingredients symbolise marriage, family reunion, the healthy birth of a baby, auspiciousness, happiness, safety and longevity. It’s a good choice for those who like to chow down on all their blessings in one bite.
Poon choi, which translates to “basin vegetables” is another Lunar New Year staple. It’s a dish that was first eaten in large village communities, where families would contribute whatever food they had to a large communal pot, which would be cooked and eaten over the course of the day. The ingredients can range from pork and beef to dried shrimp, bean curd, and bamboo shoots. Each one is prepared separately, then layered in a huge bowl, soaked in a rich gravy, and slowly heated over a stove while as it being served – kind of like hotpot. A traditionally communal dish, poon choi symbolises “unity” as friends and relatives usually gather around for a poon choi feast.
A common dim sum pastry, spring rolls take on a whole new meaning during Chinese New Year because the golden cylinder-shaped rolls look like gold bars, signifying wealth and abundance. These delectable pastries are filled with all sorts of ingredients, such as mushroom, shredded meat, bamboo shoot slices and black fungus, and deep-fried until they turn a rich golden-yellow.
Yes, you need to be particular about the sorts of fruit you eat during the festive period, too. Tangerines, oranges and pomeloes are the go-to choice of gift for house visits. Other than their shape, which symbolises fullness and wealth, the Cantonese names of these fruits are homophones for auspicious words. Orange is pronounced “charn”, which means success, while tangerine, or “gwat”, sounds similar to “gut”, which means luck.
This raw fish salad is becoming increasingly popular in Hong Kong. It consists of shredded white radish, carrot, and cucumber served on a platter with an array of condiments. Slices of raw fish slices, usually salmon, are then added on top, before all the ingredients are tossed as high as possible using chopsticks. The tossing signifies blessing of good fortunes for the coming year. As the tradition goes, the higher the ingredients are tossed, the happier you will be.