Chinese New Year for 2020 falls on 25 January, the Year of the Rat kicking off with the new moon (it’s a lunar thing, see). These celebrations – which are also known as the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year – are the most important in the Chinese calendar, lasting for 16 days.
And food, you won’t be surprised to hear, is central to the festivities.
The people who are eating the meals are of particular importance too; it’s a time for friends to come together and families to reunite over food. It’s not just about assembling the clan for a shindig, though; this group feasting is significant because the plenitude of the spread that’s prepared for feeding everyone is a good omen for abundance and wealth in the year ahead.
Symbolism like this comes into play a lot in traditional Chinese New Year feasting. Within the meals eaten during the festivities, many traditional dishes carry distinct meanings of their own.
“We like to serve specific foods at this time of year because they are homophones for things like happiness, luck and prosperity, and by consuming them, we If you see any lettuce hurtling towards you during a lion dance, you’ll do well to try and catch it ensure that we shall have all these things in the coming year,” explains Joe-Wah Chow from Wai Yee Hong, a long-established, family-run Chinese supermarket in Eastville.
“For instance, it is common for families to give each other large clementines for the New Year because their name in Chinese sounds like ‘lots of luck’. By gifting them to others, you are wishing them good luck and prosperity for the coming year.”
Foods whose names sound lucky, then, are likely going to be on that table – and, happily, there are plenty of them. For instance, whole fish is a very traditional New Year dish, ‘fish’ being a homophone for abundance in Chinese, while black sea moss is popular because its name sounds like the words for prosperity and wealth, and lotus roots are included as their name is similar to the term for having plenty.
“I most enjoy sharing these traditions with the children,” says Joe-Wah. “We go through each dish on the table and explain that we have prawns (haha) to make us smile the whole year through, we eat fish (yú) so that every year we shall have abundance and we serve a whole chicken to represent the completeness of life. The original symbolism remains deeply ingrained in our culture.”
Dumplings are also significant over Chinese New Year – but not, interestingly, because of their name, explains Larkin Cen, founder of the Woky Ko restaurants and MasterChef finalist. They have more of a visual connection to bringing prosperity in the year ahead.
“Dumplings represent wealth because of their close similarity in appearance to Chinese traditional currency, which were oval, boat-shaped hunks of gold used in Imperial China. Families typically wrap their own dumplings and continue wrapping until midnight to signify leaving the old year behind. Some families will hide a coin in one of the dumplings, and whoever receives that dumpling is believed to have a prosperous year.”
Over the 16 days of festivities, there are a couple of meals that are particularly important: the ‘reunion’ dinner, which happens at the very end of the old year, and the ‘open year’ dinner, which welcomes in the new, says Joe-Wah.
“It is important for family and friends to begin and end the year together – this signifies the completeness and unity of life and family.
“We will always ensure that we have leftovers at the reunion dinner, as this means that we shall have plenty of food each year.”
At the end of the dinner, Joe-Wah’s family always have tangyuan (which must be eaten in pairs). These sticky rice balls are served in a sweet ginger syrup, their spherical shape symbolising the family remaining together: “I remember making these as a child, with my grandma. We would fold the soft squishy dough around traditional fillings like chopped nuts and sugar or sesame paste, and then also make some special ones with chocolate spread and peanut butter.”
The Spring Festival isn’t solely centred on the dinner table, though: public celebrations include lots of entertainment like traditional dance.
“Lion dances are performed at Chinese festivals or big occasions to bring good fortune and chase away evil spirits,” explains Larkin. “The lion dance is one of the most important traditions at Chinese New Year.”
And yep, you guessed it, food plays its part in that, too. During the performance, the beast – played by dancers wearing a custom-made costume – is offered a lettuce, which it ‘eats’, scattering the leaves over the ground in the process.
“Phonetically, the word ‘lettuce’ in Chinese also means ‘good fortune’ or ‘prosperity’,” says Larkin. “That is why it is important to catch the lettuce if you ever see it being thrown at you during the lion dance!”
This month, both Woky Ko and Wai Yee Hong are hosting Chinese New Year celebrations. Woky Fest, founded by Larkin, will be returning to Wapping Wharf, promising more of that lion action, as well as a series of events including special set New Year feasts and cocktails (keep an eye on Woky Ko’s social media pages for updates).
Wai Yee Hong is also planning a suitably festive knees up to welcome the Year of the Rat. A free-to-attend, family-friendly event is planned for 25 January at its Easton complex. Expect performances of dance, martial arts and singing, as well as an Asian street food market featuring the likes of Eatchu, She Sells Sushi and Desy Thai. The event raises funds for Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Appeal, too.