Here Are The Meanings Behind 5 Popular Chinese New Year Dishes That You Eat Every Year

Can impress your family with these meanings at reunion dinner, hehe.

Cover image via Ika Rahma / Vecteezy & Frank Zhang / Unsplash

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1. Yee sang

Did you know that yee sang, both the dish itself and the tradition of tossing it, is something that's uniquely Malaysian and Singaporean? It is a dish that means an increase of abundance, as it is called 'yu sheng' in Mandarin, with 'yu' meaning abundance and 'sheng' meaning rise or increase.

It is believed that the higher you toss the yee sang, the more your fortune will grow in the new year, so make sure to toss as high as you can!

Besides the meaning of the dish as a whole, each component also has its own symbolism, which mostly boils down to the Chinese names of the ingredients being homophones for auspicious sayings.

Here are some examples:
- Carrot: Carrots (hong luo bo) indicate blessings of good luck as it has a homophone in 'hong yun dang tou', which means 'good luck is approaching'
- Fish: Just like the 'yu' in 'yu sheng', fish is also pronounced 'yu' in Mandarin, thus it carries the same meaning of abundance
- Cucumber: Known as 'ja kua' in Chinese, it shares the same pronunciation as the word for returns, signifying having many happy returns in all your ventures

2. Dumplings

Dumplings represent wealth because they are shaped like gold ingots, a form of currency in the olden days. That's why it's believed that the more dumplings you eat during CNY celebrations, the more money you'll earn in the new year.

But you have to be careful when making them, because the wrong shape could bring misfortune instead. To make sure your dumplings are lucky ones, ensure they have a good number of pleats. Also, avoid making the junction too flat as this is thought to purport poverty.

Besides that, you have to choose the right filling. A popular tradition during CNY is to eat dumplings filled with radish and cabbage, as this suggests that you will have fair skin and a gentle temperament.

On the flip side, dumplings filled with suan cai (Chinese pickled vegetables) should be avoided during CNY because suan cai implies a poor and difficult future.

3. Mandarin oranges / Tangerines

Just like dumplings, Mandarin oranges also resemble gold ingots, in both shape and colour, carrying a meaning of wealth.

As 'orange' and 'success' sound similar in Mandarin, and one of the ways of writing tangerine includes the Chinese character for 'luck', eating or displaying Mandarin oranges or tangerines around the home is believed to bring good luck and fortune.

Plus, the act of giving Mandarin oranges to someone is known as 'song gam' in Cantonese, which can also be translated as 'giving gold'. So, by giving your loved ones Mandarin oranges, you are wishing prosperity upon them.

4. Longevity noodles

Other than during Chinese New Year, this noodle dish is also usually served at birthday parties or weddings. It dates back to the Tang Dynasty, can can either be fried or boiled in a broth.

What makes longevity noodles unique, you ask? It's that they're longer than normal noodles and left uncut, thus representing the hope for the eater to have a long and happy life. You're supposed to slurp the noodles whole without breaking them off, as cutting the noodles implies that you're 'cutting your life short'.

5. Steamed fish

As previously mentioned, the Mandarin words for fish and abundance are both pronounced as 'yu', making fish a particularly important dish during CNY. It is usually steamed, and should be served whole (including the head and tail) to represent 'a year of abundance from start to end'.

Even choosing the type of fish is important. Many tend to opt for crucian carp (sounds like the Chinese word for good luck), mud carp (pronounced like the Chinese word for gifts), and catfish (sounds like 'year surplus').

To show respect, the head of the fish should be facing important guests or elders. Meanwhile, the two people facing the head and tail of the fish should drink together, as this is considered to be a lucky act.

You're even encouraged to make sure there's some leftover fish for the next day, to represent an overflow of prosperity.

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