The ethnic group of overseas Chinese communities, also known as ‘Huaren’, is the world’s largest ethnic group. This means that a total of over 50 million Huaren celebrate ‘Chunjie’ (or, ‘Spring Festival’, the whole Chinese New Year celebration period). The Chinese New Year, in short, is a major festivity. While the Chinese diaspora is scattered all over the world in every continent, Huaren’s Chinese New Year traditions are very different as a result of migration. The geographical differences start to reflect on their varied practices. For this reason, it is hard to say what the exact must-eat Chinese New Year Dishes are, during the ‘Family Reunion Dinner’ known as ‘Tuanyuan Fan’.
There really is no such thing as a strict list of ‘must-eat New Year’s eve dishes’. However, the general concepts may apply to Tuanyuan Fan traditions practiced by Huanren worldwide. These are concepts of symbolic dishes which have positive meanings or good blessings attached to them for the upcoming new year. The meal is also typically served around a round-shaped table to symbolize (re)union, completeness, and fulfillment.
1. Dumplings (Jiaozi)
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Jiaozi is probably the most symbolic and significant food in Chinese culture. This is because it means bidding farewell to the old as we usher in the new. Its shape is said to look like the old Chinese ‘gold ingot’ and symbolizes good luck and prosperity. Do you want to ‘huat’ or be overflooded with wealth in the new year (or ‘facai’)? Then make sure you have more Jiaozi during the Tuanyuan Fan! Traditionally, families make their own Jiaozi. Sometimes a few coins are washed and wrapped inside certain dumplings for the lucky finders to discover. And for this luck to be carried into the oncoming year.
2. Whole Fish
As part of a typical Chinese celebratory feast, a whole fish will be presented at a Tuanyuan Fan. The word ‘fish’ or ‘yu’ in Chinese Mandarin has the same pronunciation as the word ‘to have remaining (of something)’. Serving a whole fish, therefore, symbolizes ‘may one have more than one needs (every year)’. After one side of the fish is eaten, the fish cannot be flipped over to the other side. Instead, the fishbone needs to be removed for the other side of the fish to be reachable and eaten. This is because flipping the fish may negatively symbolize a ‘sunken boat’ or a ‘failed venture’.
The third on the list of Chinese New Year dishes is tofu. Plain tofu in its white colour symbolizes a year untainted, or cleared away from troubles such as rumours or lawsuits. It is also typically cooked with other ingredients to create more colourful and festive dishes.
4. Rice Cake (Niangao)
Niangao is to be eaten at some point during the Chunjie. This is a glutinous dessert with a sweet bean-curd filling, normally made in the shape of a cube or round. Niangao’s fortunate meaning comes from the sound of its name: ‘Nian’ means ‘year’, which shares the same pronunciation with the Chinese word ‘sticky’; ‘Gao’ means ‘cake’, while sounding like the Chinese words meaning ‘taller’ or ‘higher’. Niangao is therefore a rice cake and a sticky cake that symbolises ‘further rising or to be lifted in the coming year’.
With Huaren’s coastal roots, seafood is definitely always on the Chinese New Year dishes list – although winter may not be the best season for it. Prawns are typically served with heads and tails, to symbolize ‘from the beginning to the end’ or positive completion and closure. While cooking prawns, its colour turns from grey into the dark orange/red that we know, which symbolizes good luck for the upcoming year. Red is seen as a lucky colour in Chinese culture.
Celebrate Tuanyan Fan
Tuanyuan Fan is traditionally seen as one of the most significant meals of the year and every family will try to get the best for the meal. If you ever have the chance to dine with a Chinese family on such an occasion, please be extra observant as everything on the table has a meaning and way of being attached to it! Also, you don’t need to be Chinese to celebrate this holiday. I invite you to feel free and create your own version of Tuanyuan Fan with your loved ones and make it a colourful gathering filled with good wishes and positivity to light up the sometimes gloomy month of February.
Lastly, while we’re on the topic of Chinese New Year, here’s a fun fact about the Chinese Language: did you know that Chinese is one of the most spoken languages in the world?
May you enjoy this Chinese New Year as we roar into the year of the Tiger, one with much prosperity and health. ‘Xinnian Kuaile’, happy new year to you all!