Food is at the Heart of My Family’s Chinese New Year Traditions

Here are six traditional Chinese New Year foods and dishes my family prepares to welcome the Lunar New Year

By Whitney Welbaum

Many Asian countries celebrate the Lunar New Year, and each have their own cultural traditions tied to the holiday. My family celebrates the holiday as Chinese New Year and many of our traditions revolve around food. We hang red decorations and eat fish, chicken, oranges, dumplings, rice cakes and persimmons for good luck and prosperity in the new year. 

Unfortunately, this is the second year I am not able to celebrate the holiday with my loved ones. Chinese New Year celebrations are important for my entire family and are some of my favorite childhood memories. Now, I’ve been trying to make new memories in Syracuse by sharing some of my traditions with my friends. This year, I have decided to share six of the traditional dishes that my family eats to celebrate the New Year and reflect on the symbolism behind each. I chose six as it’s a lucky number, and it goes with the saying 六六大順 or 六六大顺 (liù liù dà shùn), which encompasses six ancient blessings for positive personal relationships. 

Name: Fish 魚 or 鱼 (yú)

Meaning: 年年有餘 or 年年有余 (Nián nián yǒu yú) Every year has a surplus.

whole fish illustration
Illustration by Jordan Schechter

This dish was the centerpiece of every New Years celebration at my table, and my grandmother always prepared it for my family. The fish is either steamed or fried, but the preparation doesn’t matter as long as it consists of the whole fish — head and tail included. We eat part of the fish on New Year’s Eve and eat the rest on New Year’s Day. This symbolizes carrying a surplus into the new year, so you will always have more than enough to sustain yourself and your family.

Name: Chicken 雞 or 鸡 (jī)

Meaning: 大吉大利 (Dà jí dà lì) Good luck, good profit.

Whole cooked chicken illustration
Illustration by Jordan Schechter

My family always makes a big fuss about making sure we have chicken on the dinner table, and this dish is my grandmother’s personal favorite. Like the fish, the preparation doesn’t matter as long as it is a whole chicken. My family doesn’t usually cook this dish ourselves; we prefer to buy it fully cooked from our local Asian markets. We eat this dish because the Chinese word for chicken sounds very similar to the Chinese word for luck. 

Name: Oranges 橘子(jú zi)

Meaning: 吉利 (jí lì) Good luck.

oranges illustration
Illustration by Jordan Schechter

Oranges are another symbol of good luck. This fruit is used as a dessert, decoration and offering during New Years celebrations. My family eats oranges at the end of the meal. Oranges are also placed around the house and on the dinner table as decorations. We also place oranges in front of the pictures of my great grandparents, as an offering to celebrate in their memory.

Name: Dumplings 水餃 or 水饺 (shuǐ jiǎo)

Meaning: 招財進寶 or 招财进宝 (zhāo cái jìn bǎo) Bring in wealth and good fortune.

dumplings illustration
Illustration by Jordan Schechter

Every new year morning, I wake up and eat 元寶 (yuán bǎo) dumplings to symbolize gold ingots. My mother always prepared my favorite pork and chive filled dumplings while I was sleeping so it would be the first thing I would smell when I opened my eyes. Dumplings are made in a similar shape to gold ingots, a form of ancient boat-shaped Chinese currency. As a child, I was always excited to eat the dish because I would imagine that I was eating little boats of gold instead of just dumplings.

Name: Rice Cake 年糕 (nián gāo)

Meaning: 年年高升 (nián nián gāo shēng) Every year reach new heights.

3 rice cakes illustration
Illustration by Jordan Schechter

This is my personal favorite of my family’s New Years dishes because it is so versatile and can be prepared in many different ways. Rice cakes can be prepared as either sweet or savory and come in many different shapes and sizes. My favorite savory preparation is stir fried oval-shaped rice cakes with chives and ground pork. Growing up, I would always beg my mother to make this for me, even when it wasn’t New Years. No one can top her preparation of sweet baked rice cake. My sister loves 芝麻湯圓 or 芝麻汤圆 (zhī má tāng yuán), which are bite-sized rice ball dumplings filled with sesame seed paste. 

Name: Persimmons 柿子 (shì zi)

Meaning: 事事如意 (shì shì rú yì) May all your wishes come true.

persimmons illustration
Illustration by Jordan Schecheter

In front of my grandparents’ house, there are two persimmon trees that have been there as long as I can remember. The branches are sometimes so laden with fruit that they would bend and touch the ground from their weight. Picking the fruit off of the trees was always one of my favorite activities, and it’s one of my sister’s favorites as well. Persimmons are used similarly to oranges; as a dish, decoration and offering to our ancestors. Many of our New Years decorations also feature images of persimmons and we hang them around the house. 

My food traditions are unique because they allow me to bring a little bit of my family and culture with me to school. No matter where I am, I can always rely on my family’s traditional dishes to bring me comfort. Hope everyone has a happy New Year! 新年快樂 or 新年快乐!

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