Chinese New Year Food Superstitions

February 7th marks the beginning of the rodent’s 12- month reign as the Year of the Rat. The more popular Chinese New Year traditions, like the dragon dance, red lanterns and firecrackers, are easy to talk about, but I wanted to interview my parents for their take on the little known food traditions of the holiday. Each province in China celebrates different customs for the new year, and I’ve discovered that the southern Cantonese are mighty superstitious folks. My mom began rattling off dishes that her family prepares and serves to guests.

My mom:

• To begin with, Mom always serves a noodle dish, the strands of the noodles signifies long life. Don’t cut the noodles before serving, otherwise you’re snipping your life short.

• A whole chicken, head and all, is served simply steamed to represent good health. A whole steamed fish, eyeballs and all, was served for abundance.” The Chinese word for fish is, “yu,” which, according to my mom, sounds similar to the Chinese word for “every year our family has something leftover and we always have enough.” The Chinese are very efficient in the language department.

• Crispy egg rolls, once fried to a golden brown, resemble long gold bars. Handmade dumplings, either pan fried or boiled, look like ancient Chinese gold ingots. My mom’s family used to hide a gold coin in one of the hundreds of dumplings that they would make and the lucky bastard who bit into the dumpling with the coin was to receive wealth and prosperity throughout the year following a hefty dental bill, I’m sure.

• For luck, display plenty of tangerines, preferably big fat ones with leaves still attached. Also of great importance is “Nien Goh,” or steamed rice cake, which signifies “every year you reach a higher level of life,” says mom.

• But whatever you do, don’t serve squid, called “Yow Yu.” In the olden days, workers would have to travel far from home to work, often bringing personal belongings rolled up in a blanket. When a worker was fired, he was ordered to “yow,” or roll up his blanket, packing his stuff to go home. Serving squid symbolizes being fired in the coming year. If your co-workers or subordinates pleasantly surprises you with a dish of succulent squid on February 7th, be very suspicious.

My father, from the Ling Po province of China, near Shanghai, is a simple man. Here’s what he had to say…

My father:

“In our kitchen, we would hang a portrait of the Kitchen God. The Kitchen God watches over you all year and on Chinese New Year, he goes back to the heavens and reports to the other Gods of prosperity, fortune, and health, on what you’ve been doing and how well you’ve behaved. Before the end of the year, my family would create an elaborate banquet just for the Kitchen God and display the plates of noodles, dumplings, fish, candies, cakes and meats right in front of his portrait. Basically, we bribed the Kitchen God to say nice things about us.”

So, there you have it. Whether you choose serve your friends and family a wonderful Chinese meal to welcome the Year of the Rat, or cook to bribe the Kitchen God, here are a few recipes that would be great for the holiday. Also take a look over to the next column to the right – there are more recipes for you!

What are some of your Chinese New Year superstitions?

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Mother’s Famous Crispy Egg Rolls or her Vegetable Spring Rolls with video (egg rolls look like gold bars, which symbolize wealth)

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Roast Chicken with Sweet Plum Sauce

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Chinese Steamed Whole Fish

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Garlic Brandy Prawns

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Steamed Ribs in Black Bean Sauce

Infographic: What to eat for Chinese New Year!

Comments 84

  1. joanne

    Yea, my parents are from Quang Duong area too. They grew up in Hong Kong. Many Cantonese superstitious traditions. Cleaning the house, not washing the hair, wear red, tangerines and oranges with little red envelopes stuck between the fruit. Having plenty of iceberg lettuce in the fridge(to grow money), new bag of rice, plenty of salt, and oil Visiting friends and family with bags of oranges, fruit and envelope swapping.
    It’s all about the food for me. I love the Hoe See Soong, Jai, clams in black bean sauce (the clams shells were to represent gold coins) crab, fish, lots of yummy food. I enjoy the Jai, and sometimes when we were lucky, mom would make shark’s fin soup for the dinner. All the pastries to eat. Man, I wish I was back in CA during CNY. As it was I held off getting all the fresh, need to eat it today ingredients until today. Guess what? Tornado watch! So I got scared and didn’t want to leave the house. No way I could get all the shopping and cooking done by 8pm for dinner. We ended up going out for dinner. Have I mentioned there are no decent Chinese restaurants near me? The ubiquitous Chin Chin, with the jack of all trades over used brown sauce doesn’t cut it for me. Hell the restaurant we went to tonight, even warned us, we would not like their version of Peking duck and to just get the crispy duck instead. So, I now have the wrath of the CNY gods because I will do my celebratory dinner this weekend instead.

  2. Ed

    My family’s Filipino as well, and we did the coin tossing – ouch is right. We also keep a bowlful of round fruit (a Chinese tradition) and cook up tikoy (the Filipino name for sticky rice cake – also Chinese – most versions are stamped with a double happiness character).

    I used to celebrate the Lunar New Year every year I was at UC Berkeley over at the Oakland Chinatown – loved the parades, and loved the free food I got for volunteering at the Oakland Asian Center!

  3. Nate 2.0

    Gong Xi Fa Cai to everyone!

    The main superstition I remember from when I was a kid was that you’re not supposed to sweep the front stoop on new year’s day. It symbolized sweeping away the good fortune from the house.

  4. lovingtocook

    Happy Chinese New Year! You would think the egg roll was bad luck and not the squid because it’s rolled like a blanket…but I’m really glad its not. :)

  5. Diane

    Wow, that was very informative. Thank you for sharing that. It all makes sense.

    Happy Chinese New Year to you and your family!

  6. Kim

    Happy New Year! I wish you and your family all the best in the upcoming year.

    It is neat to read all the different superstitions and see the parallels between cultures as well as the opposites.
    For Tet (Vietnamese name for the lunar new year) we eat sticky rice in several forms. There is a round steamed sticky cake (banh day) made from glutinous rice flour that we use to make a sandwich of sorts. It represents the heavens. There’s also a square cake made from glutinous rice and is filled with mung bean paste and pork similar to lo mai gai (banh chung). It represents the earth. Both cakes go back to an old story about a Vietnamese prince in a food competition to inherit the crown. Like Iron Chef: ancient style!

  7. wite on rice couple

    Off the subject of food : I work in a nail shop with lots of superstitious women. It’s not only vital to start off the first day of new year eating well & looking good, but also working on a good customer $$$$$. If their first client is a pedicure, “It no good luck to do feet . Future will say we have stinky luck for 2008. “. Geez.
    I started off my good luck on this first day with a box of rhamutans. I ate 7 of them (lucky number) and shared them with the ladies at the nail shop and said, ” You do this pedicure and I’ll give you 7 lucky, red rhambutans to fend off any bad, stinky luck that might haunt you”. We all made a deal!

  8. roxy

    Oh dear, I forgot about all the superstitions! I managed to get my son to clean his room without a fuss on CNY yesterday. Is it okay if the dirt is in the handheld vac which is still in his room? Also, if I had a really crappy year, does that mean it was okay to sweep and wash my hair? I’m going to have to do better next year!
    We celebrated with prawns in black bean sauce with red and green peppers, peapods(?) and onions. Thanks for the very entertaining and delightful blog!

  9. cindy

    no traditions here! but after seeing all that delicious food, i wish! i was thinking as i read about the kitchen god, “maybe i need one of those!” until i saw about the ‘how well you have behaved’ part…fuggedaboutit! “well-behaved women rarely make history”! ;]

  10. Mansi

    Thanks for sharing your “superstitions” jaden!:) at least that gave us some great food!! Wish you a fabulous New Year girl, especially with all the things you have planned ahead for your foodie world!:)

  11. hong kong boy

    for CNY, we were not allowed to say anything “bad”
    like after dinner–say “I am full” not “I am finished”
    and try not to drop your chop sticks
    and always greet everybody with “goon hay fat choy!”

  12. Tracy

    Being of Irish, Scottish and German descent, I don’t have any Chinese New Year superstitions, but I did enjoy the informative and humorous way you presented those of your parents.

    I especially laughed about your crack about the gold coin. Because my dad is a dentist, whenever I read about traditions involving hiding things in food (like hiding a baby in a Mardi Gras King cake), the first thing I think of is people breaking their teeth! I can’t bring myself to adopt any of those traditions.

  13. Karin

    Oh, jeez… Chinese New Year is like Christmas for my mum and my dad (they’re from the Guangdong region). Let’s see… we make nian gou, lo bak gou, wu tou gou, fat choi + ho sin, lai mien, gok zei, yu (head and eyes and all) and we get signs with ‘gong hei fat cho’, ‘fouk’ (hung upside down), and some other stuff I can’t really remember XD… we have oranges in the kitchen, those turning things stuffed full of candy, and my parents take us around to the few friends + relatives we have over here for lei see (the lei see we get from our parents is stuffed under our pillows). On the actual CNY day, we’re not supposed to wash our hair and we say ‘gong hei fat choy, sun tei ghin hong’ and stuff like that. Yeah, we’re definitely pretty superstitious. XDD (my parents are still making nian gou, and a pan of it just fell into the steamer water…)

  14. Gandamora Pascal D Siregar

    well i am, we are not chinese but we are most interested in chinese food,
    especially i am also interested in chinese culture and the most astrology are chinese which are the most rightly.
    enyoing(celebrate) every chinese new year in the chinese-town of Amsterdam There are every chinese new yaer full of much differents chinese food and i thing (at least for me ) the Guangdong kitchen is very delicious I am right? Also people can walk around to see all exhibition of chinese trade and chinese food and watching to fir work. And at home we oftenly eat chinese food more of the indonesian chinese as we are from Indonesia but we l.ioke more the originale chinese food from the Guangdong region. My wife love to makes crispy egg rolls, so we have very often crispy eggs rolls on the table.
    thank you. Gandamora Pascal D. Siregar

  15. tinyhands

    Your mom is absolutely correct about squid. I was ‘inventing’ in my kitchen yesterday (a bit late, but in honor of lunar new year, at least in my mind) by stuffing squid tubes with an asian-inspired concoction of crabmeat & spices. I cut my finger pretty badly, burned another finger, and made a HUGE mess in the kitchen when the fryer foamed-over. If only I’d made my dumplings instead.

  16. Gandamora Siregar

    Dear team management,

    this mail (info) below has nothing to do with the CNY.
    —————-
    I had make a wrong choice namely at yr mail dt 11 feb 2008 the questions was;”to manage subcpritions or to block all notifications from the site click the lijk below”right. I had make the wrong choice and will still manage this site. Do somebody can help me to make it in order? I am, grateful thank you very much, indeed.

  17. SteamyKitchen

    Hey Gandamora – I don’t know how to change your option. Can you email me the 11 feb 2008 email?

    email me at : [email protected]

  18. klook

    A little late here, but there are 15 days to the Chinese New Year celebration. :)

    This year I made my first attempt at Fatt Goh. These steamed muffins are an indicator of your fortunes in the coming year. They are not supposed to collapse or remain flat. They must rise so much that the top splits open like a blossom, since to rise or “Fatt” is the same word as in Fatt Choy, to become wealthy. It was a nerve-wrecking 20 minute wait, but mine blossomed. phew.

    Happy Lunar New Year!

  19. Mei

    Sweets…you forgot that sweets are a must to ensure a good year ahead. Cookies, candies, chocolates are always on everyone’s snack bar during Chinese New Year.

    Pineapples are a must as well because of the meaning of the Cantonese/Hokkien word – “wong lai” or “ong lai” (fortune comes). Besides, pineapples signify gold so in Hokkien and Malaysian-Cantonese homes, anything with pineapples – deco, cookies and the fruit itself – can be found. :)

  20. Louise

    Hi Jaden, Hope you don’t mind that I revisited this link to include in a post I did today. Thanks for sharing…I have it in my resource section:) I found your link through my personal search engine where you’ve been since my first visit here. Everything looks so good and I adore the added commentary!!! Happy New Year!!!

  21. wendy tam

    I am searching for your “Loh-hey” Chinese New Year salad and dressing. I thought I saw it at one time and lost it. Would you please tell me where to look for it.

    Thanks,

    Wendy

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