Why are peach blossoms and kumquat trees such a welcome gift at a Chinese new years celebration? Why are the Summer Olympics in Beijing scheduled to open on 8/8/08 at 8:08:08 p.m? And what is it about fish served whole, duck, spring rolls, noodles, and bamboo shoots that make them abundant features of the traditional new years meal?
From special foods, to particular flowers and lucky numbers, the traditional Chinese new year celebration includes a myriad of auspicious symbols for longevity, prosperity, fertility, and all manner of good fortune. Whether hosting a new years party or attending a celebration, you may want to keep these in mind as you offer your intention and good wishes for the year ahead to family and friends.
Some flowers are particularly auspicious as they bloom in the spring, symbolizing rebirth, new growth and prosperity. In Chinese cities around the world, flower fairs appear on the 26th day of the last moon, and run each evening until New Year’s Eve. A stroll through the flower fair is a New Year ritual enjoyed by many Chinese families.
Peach blossom is a symbol of long life and is regarded as the strongest defense against evil. Should your peach blossom bloom during the New Year celebration it is sure sign that the year ahead will be one of good fortune.
Plum blossoms symbolize reliability and perseverance. The plum blossom is often arranged with bamboo (resilience and integrity) and pine springs (longevity and steadfastness). Together this grouping is called “The Three Friends of Winter” because they all live and bloom during the winter season. They represent friendship, endurance, and happiness in old age.
Peony is called the ‘Flower of Wealth and Honor’ and is the emblem of love and affection, as well as being a symbol for feminine beauty. The bright red peony is particularly auspicious, bringing with it luck and good fortune.
Kumquat tree in Cantonese is called Gam Gat Sue. The word Gam rhymes with the Cantonese word for gold, and the word Gat rhymes with the Cantonese word for luck. In Mandarin, kumquat is jin jiu meaning “golden orange” symbolizing gold or wealth.
Lucky Number Eight
The word for “eight” in Chinese (Pinyin: bā) sounds similar to the word which means “prosper” or “wealth” (发 – short for “发财”, Pinyin: fā). In Cantonese, “eight” and “fortune” are also similar, eg Cantonese “baat” and “faat”.
There is also a resemblance between two digits, “88”, and the shuang xi (‘double joy’), a popular decorative design composed of two stylized characters 喜 (xi, ‘joy’, ‘happiness’).
The auspicious quality of the number eight is taken quite seriously by some. The telephone number 8888-8888 was sold for USD $270,723 to someone in Chengdu, China. The Summer Olympics in Beijing are scheduled to open on 8/8/08 at 8:08:08 p.m.
Most of the dishes served during Chinese New Year celebration are symbolic of something positive and hopeful. Dishes are also chosen based on homonyms–words that either are spelled the same or sound the same as other words.
- Chicken and fish symbolize happiness and prosperity – especially when served whole, symbolizing togetherness of the family
- Oranges and tangerines represent wealth and good fortune because they are golden and because they are China’s most plentiful fruit. Traditional etiquette includes bringing a bag of these fruits whenever visiting family or friends during the 2-week long new years celebration. Tangerines with leaves intact assure that one’s relationship with the other remains secure.
- Noodles represent longevity (therefore, they should never be cut!)
- Duck symbolizes fidelity, while eggs signify fertility.
- Clams and spring rolls both symbolize wealth; clams because of their resemblance to bouillon, and spring rolls because their shape is similar to gold bars
- The word for fish (魚yú) sounds like the word for abundance or surpluses “(餘yú). 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.
- Turnips are served because their name “cai tou” also means “good omen”
- The word for bamboo shoots also sounds like the phrase for “wishing that everything will be well”
Other food symbolism:
Dumplings: Wealth, good luck, fortune, and family togetherness
Oysters: Receptivity to good fortune
Seaweed: Good luck
Black Moss Seaweed: homonym for “exceeding in wealth”
Meatballs: “rou wan” is the same as the word for “reunion”
Mandarin oranges: abundance and sweetness in the new year
Longan: many good sons
Kumquat: gold, for prosperity
Lychee Nut: close family relationships
Peanuts: long life
Red melon seeds: red for happiness
Lotus seeds (also watermelon, pumpkin, other seeds): large number of children
Ginkgo nuts: “yínxìng” means “silver apricot” symbolizing wealth, hope for silver
Prawns: liveliness and happiness
Mixed vegetables: family harmony
Chinese garlic chives: everlasting, a long life
Dried Bean Curd: homonym for “fulfillment of wealth and happiness”
Fresh tofu: is never served as the color white symbolizes death and misfortune
Chinese New Year recipes
Here are some traditional recipes for the new years celebration, using easy to find Asian ingredients and suited to the Western palate:
Vietnamese Spring Rolls
100 (3.5 inch square) wonton wrappers
1 3/4 pounds ground pork
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger root
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion
4 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 egg, beaten5 cups finely shredded Chinese cabbage
1. In a large bowl, combine the pork, ginger, garlic, green onion, soy sauce, sesame oil, egg and cabbage. Stir until well mixed.
2. Place 1 heaping teaspoon of pork filling onto each wonton skin. Moisten edges with water and fold edges over to form a triangle shape. Roll edges slightly to seal in filling. Set dumplings aside on a lightly floured surface until ready to cook.
3. To cook: steam dumplings in a covered bamboo or metal steamer for about 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Serve with hoisin sauce, hot Chinese-style mustard and toasted sesame seeds
1 head iceberg lettuce or romaine lettuce leaves (whichever you prefer)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon dry sherry
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 slice ginger, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 green onions, chopped
1 lb meat from chicken breasts or sliced white chicken meat
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
1 can water chestnuts, rinsed in warm running water and chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
1. Wash the lettuce, dry, and separate the leaves. Set aside.
2. Mix together the sauce ingredients. Heat the sesame oil in a non-stick frying pan on high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and green onions and fry until the garlic and ginger are aromatic.
3. Add the chicken and cook until the chicken is browned. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.
4. Add the red pepper, water chestnuts, and celery to the frying pan. Add the sauce ingredients and cook at medium heat, Give the cornstarch/water mixture a quick restir and add to the sauce, stirring to thicken. Add the chicken back into the wok. Cook for 2 – 3 more minutes, stirring, to heat through and finish cooking the chicken.
5. Lay out a lettuce leaf and spoon a heaping teaspoon of the chicken and vegetable/sauce mixture into the middle. The lettuce wraps are designed to be eaten “taco-style,” with the lettuce/chicken mixture folded into a package. Continue with the remainder of the chicken and lettuce leaves. Serve.
1 pound thin rice noodles, soaked in cold water for 2 hours, and drained
1 pound baby shrimps, without shells, deveined, rinsed and drained
1 skinless chicken breast, 1/4-inch strips
1/4 cup white wine
2 tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
Canola oil, to cook
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1/2 cup scallions batons (white part), 1-inch lengths
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 pound bean sprout, picked
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 onion, julienned
2 eggs, lightly scrambled
2 tablespoons curry powder (Madras curry is suggested)
Salt and white pepper to taste
1. Marinate shrimp and sliced chicken together in soy sauce, wine, cornstarch and white pepper for 20 minutes.
2. In a hot wok coated well with oil, stir fry ginger, scallions and garlic. Add marinated shrimp and chicken to oil and stir-fry quickly for 30 seconds to one minute. Remove shrimp and chicken and set aside.
3. Use same oil to stir fry bean sprouts, peppers and onions. Season and cook for 1 minute and set aside.
4. Wipe out wok and coat well with oil. When oil is smoking hot, add 2 beaten eggs and rotate the pan so as to quickly spread the eggs into a pancake shape. While the egg is still partially fluid, add rice noodles to the wok. Stir and fold noodles and the eggs should be broken up into small pieces and dispersed uniformly. Continue to stir to avoid noodles from sticking to the pan.
5. Add curry powder and check for seasoning. When noodles are steaming hot, add back shrimp, chicken and vegetables to the noodles and continue to mix and stir until everything is steaming hot.
Vietnamese Spring Rolls
2 ounces bean thread noodles
2 dried Chinese black mushrooms or dried Shiitake mushrooms
1 red bell pepper
1/2 cup mung bean sprouts, or as needed
1/3 pound shelled shrimp, deveined and finely chopped
1/3 pound lean ground pork (may omit, or substitute chicken)
Salt and pepper, to taste
4 cups oil for deep-frying, or as needed
8 to 10 rice paper wrappers (banh trang) round shaped
1/4 cup chopped basil (Thai basil if possible) and cilantro leaves
Sweet and sour dipping sauce (see ingredients below)
1. Soak the bean thread noodles in warm water to soften. Drain thoroughly. Reconstitute the dried mushrooms by soaking them in warm water until softened (20 to 30 minutes). Squeeze the excess moisture out and slice.
2. Peel and shred the carrot. Cut the red pepper and the cucumber julienne style. Rinse and drain the mung bean sprouts.
3. Combine all the filling ingredients (the bean thread noodles, mushrooms, shredded carrot, chopped pepper and cucumber, mung bean sprouts, pork, shrimp, and the egg). Season with salt and pepper.
4. Heat the oil for deep-frying in a wok to between 350 to 375 degrees. Make sure there is enough oil to completely submerge the rolls.
5. Soften the rice paper wrappers by submerging them very briefly in hot (not boiling) water, with the patterned side up. Immediately remove the wrapper from the water. Let it dry for a few seconds, then add 2 heaping tablespoons of filling. Fold the left and right sides of the wrapper over the filling, and then roll it up
6. Deep-fry the rolls until they are golden brown (about 2 minutes). Drain the rolls on a tempura rack if you have one, or on paper towels.
7. Serve the rolls whole or cut cross-wise into serving size pieces, with Sweet and Sour Fish Sauce for dipping.
Sweet and Sour Fish Sauce
2 garlic cloves
5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup warm water
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon red chili paste, as desired
Finely mince the garlic. In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients until the sugar dissolves.