It's tradition across most of Asia to hold a lavish feast to celebrate the lunar new year, which falls this year on February 16. In China, festive red lanterns, ear-splitting firecrackers, auspicious door decorations, and new clothes and haircuts are all part of the celebrations as families gather the evening before to see out the old year and usher in the new. For many, though, enjoying a special meal with loved ones is the most important element of all.
With multiple courses and an abundance of special-occasion foods, sweets, treats, and extravagant dishes, the feast differs according to each family's customs and the local cuisine. But one certainty is that the meal will be heavy on foods with a symbolic significance, cooked and served to bring good fortune to the year ahead. If you're looking for a positive start to the Chinese New Year, these classic dishes will be sure to bring you daji dali—good luck and great prosperity.
In winter, a steaming cauldron of boiling water sits on every stove, ready to cook jiaozi at a moment's notice. Today, making dumplings together at Chinese New Year is a tradition shared by almost every Chinese family around the world, but the practice has its roots in China's north, where the wheat used in the tender dumpling skins (jiaozi pi) was once a more commonplace staple than rice. For some, it's a matter of principle to make and roll those dumpling wrappers by hand; for others, it's the gesture that counts, so it's not unusual to buy dumpling skins from the local noodle shop, where round and square wrappers alike are sold by weight.
Just as dumpling wrappers vary greatly from home to home, virtually everyone has their own recipe for the filling, or jiaozi xian. Ground pork is the most popular ingredient, often blended with shrimp, savory Shaoxing wine, white pepper, and piquant ginger; it can also be mixed with white cabbage, sesame oil, soy sauce, and scallions. For the small but growing number of vegetarians in China, a combination of finely chopped Chinese white radish, leeks, five-spice tofu, shiitake mushrooms, and cooked glass noodles makes a rich and colorful alternative filling. Once filled and pleated, the dumplings are boiled for just a few minutes, until cooked through, or steamed and/or pan-fried as potstickers (guotie).
Any leftovers are typically frozen and kept in reserve for family and friends who might visit over the festive period. Dropped, still frozen, into the endlessly boiling pot on the stove, the jiaozi are transformed into a meal in about 10 minutes. On a cold night, there's nothing that quite matches a bowl of dumplings, the steam rising as you dip them in dark, malty Zhenjiang vinegar or smoky, chili-laced Shanxi aged vinegar, and slurp them down.
Dayu Darou (Whole Fish or Meat)
The Lunar New Year meal will almost always include dayu darou—literally "big fish and big meat." The phrase is used to describe any lavish feast where animal proteins play a central role, as opposed to day-to-day eating, in which meat and seafood are used much more sparingly.
A whole fish lends an impressive appearance to the dinner table, but fish is also symbolic of abundance. The Chinese phrase you yu, literally "to have fish," is a pair of homophones: yu, meaning "fish," sounds exactly the same as you, meaning "surplus." As you eat the fish, you may therefore wish your friends niannian youyu—may you have abundance year after year!
The fish is usually steamed whole in a style commensurate with the region of China in which it's being served. In Hangzhou, it might be xi hu cu yu (West Lake vinegar fish), carp that's steamed and then drenched in an unctuous sweet vinegar sauce the color of molasses. In southern China's Guangdong Province, the fish may be served simply, drizzled with soy and sesame oil and topped with a tangle of ginger, chili, and shallots, or with a more intensely flavorful topping of ginger, black beans, and cilantro. The fish might even be deep-fried whole, like the extraordinary Suzhou squirrel fish (songshu yu)—served in a sweet-sour sauce, with the flesh cut in such a way that it springs outward like the fur of a squirrel when cooked, while the head and tail are left intact.
Lawei (Cured Meats)
In the winter streets all over China, flayed giant fish, ducks, and skeins of Chinese sausage hang from racks and poles, drying and curing in preparation for Chinese New Year, and echoing ancient sacrifices that took place in the dying days of the year after winter solstice. Historically, during layue, the 12th lunar month, year-end animal sacrifices of pigs, poultry, and fish were made to the gods. All that was left after the gods were finished needed to be saved, leading to the development of techniques for meat-drying and preservation.
Even in modern-day China, many families continue to prepare their own, hanging the meats from window ledges and washing lines like macabre New Year holiday decorations. The result is salt-cured, air-dried pork (larou) with the salty, funky intensity of the best Spanish hams; gamy, dense bites of preserved duck and chicken (and their hearts); and other rich sausages, all designed to be served and eaten as cold dishes, much like a French charcuterie plate.
Chun Juan (Spring Rolls)
Spring rolls (chun juan) take their name from the holiday for which they're traditionally prepared: the Spring Festival (chunjie), also known as Chinese New Year. The crisp golden rolls are meant to symbolize bars of gold and bring wealth and prosperity in the year to come.
The wrappers, made from a hardy dough of wheat flour and water, hide a filling of shredded carrot, shiitake mushrooms, cabbage, bean sprouts, and pork, doused with a sauce of Shaoxing wine, oyster sauce, and ginger. Most spring rolls are deep-fried, for a crackling-crunchy and piping-hot shell that surrounds the tender filling. In some places, though, you'll find soft precooked pancake wrappers served separately from the filling, for each person to assemble and eat according to personal preference.
Changshou Mian (Longevity Noodles)
The literal translation of changshou mian is "long-life noodles." These two-foot-long noodles make an appearance at birthdays in addition to the Chinese New Year, representing the wish for a long, happy, and healthy life. The noodles may be served fried; with oyster sauce and finely sliced shiitake mushrooms and bok choy; or with bok choy in a simple broth that's lightly seasoned with soy and ginger.
Good Fortune Fruit
Because Chinese New Year always falls at the tail end of winter, the fruits available tend to be limited to those that thrive in colder months—namely, oranges, tangerines, kumquats, and pomelos. The fruits are given as gifts, their round shape and gold color said to symbolize prosperity and bring the recipient good fortune throughout the year. They might be presented still growing on a small tree, which can then be used to decorate the home, or given as part of a fruit basket and intended for eating over the festive period, usually at the end of the meal. The thin-skinned kumquats (jinju) are pleasantly sweet, with a slight tartness but no bitterness, and are eaten whole, skin included. Giant pomelos, on the other hand, are hard work to get into; peeling back the thick skin and removing the pith and tough integument of each segment requires strength and patience. But the globules within are a marvelous reward, little bursts of tart grapefruit sweetness with barely a hint of bitterness.
Babao Fan (Eight Treasures Rice)
This sweet sticky-rice pudding symbolizes great fortune (literally, the promise of eight treasures for the lucky eater). It's a feast for the eyes, studded with fruits and nuts and drenched in a glistening sugar syrup. The exact combination of eight treasures isn't set in stone, but the pudding usually includes an assortment of lotus seeds, almond kernels, jujubes, candied fruits, dried longans, dried plums, red bean paste, gingko seeds, apricot kernels, and goji berries.
The construction of the pudding is an exercise in focus and care. The cook begins by placing fruits and seeds in a pattern along the inside of a bowl, then adds a layer of cooked glutinous rice that's been moistened with butter and sweetened with sugar. Next, a circle of fruit is placed around the edge of the bowl, topped with a second, gently arranged layer of rice. A circle of sweet red bean paste follows, smaller than the bowl's diameter, and is topped with a final covering of rice. Once the bowl has been steamed and cooled, the cook turns it out onto a plate, revealing (if all goes well) a bright, precise mosaic of fruits and nuts that sparkle beneath the sweet syrup poured liberally over the top.
Tang Yuan (Glutinous-Rice Balls in Sweet Syrup)
These small, delightfully gummy rice balls, formed with glutinous-rice flour and water, are served as symbols of togetherness and family reunion. The spheres themselves are relatively bland, but they're almost always served in a seasoned broth—typically a sweet, syrupy soup that's sometimes flavored with sweet fermented rice and aromatic dried guihua (osmanthus) blossoms. In many parts of China, tang yuan are eaten at the start of the Lantern Festival, marking the end of the Chinese New Year period, but in Shanghai and the south, they're eaten throughout the New Year festivities. The glutinous-rice balls might be plain and the size of a small marble, or larger and stuffed with sweet black sesame paste. In all cases, they're plump and pleasantly chewy, yielding easily to the bite, and considered a comforting dessert on cold nights when served in their warm, sweet broth.