Chinese New Year isn't just an excuse to set off firecrackers and collect money from grandparents — although that is certainly a highlight. There's also feasting to be done! Food is a huge part of the Chinese New Year celebration each year, also known as the Spring Festival, which lasts two weeks. The start of festivities varies each year since it is based on the lunar-solar calendar, so this year, which is the Year of the Snake, it falls on Sunday, Feb. 10.
Why is food so important during this time of year? Well, one reason is that food brings people together, no matter where you are in the world, and this is a crucial time for family members to reconnect. But also, certain foods have specific symbolism in connection with one's well-being for the coming year.
For example, noodles are served because they symbolize longevity; it is customary to eat them without cutting into them or breaking them in any way. Clams are similar in shape to coins, so they represent wealth, and tangerines, oranges, and pomelos are also symbolic of luck, wealth, and bounty, respectively. Whole fish is served at the end of the evening feast to ensure an auspicious start (symbolized by the head) and end (symbolized by the tail) to the new year, and also because fish represent abundance.
But there are also specific dishes with roots in tradition. Luo Hon Jai, for example, is a vegetarian dish served at the beginning of the Spring Festival. In accordance with Buddhist principles, no animals are to be slaughtered on the first day of the year, and vegetables are thought to have a cleansing effect on the body. Each of the vegetables in this dish has a specific meaning in connection with one's fortunes for the coming year.
If this sounds complicated, it doesn't have to be. We turned to Farina Wong Kingsley, author of several cookbooks including Asian, Food Made Fast, and Essentials of Asian Cooking, as well as the recently released cooking app, Farina's Asian Pantry, for some fantastic recipes and helpful tips to help you put together your very own delicious Chinese New Year feast.
Kingsley has the unique perspective of being a professional cook with firm roots as a home cook as well. That's because she first started learning how to cook Cantonese food from her grandmother as she was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. But also, her extensive experience studying and cooking Cantonese cuisine professionally, including training at the Hong Kong Kowloon Restaurant School and a stint cooking at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, combined with her extensive teaching experience with the Asian culinary program at Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco, helps bridge the gap for home cooks without having to cross oceans themselves.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.