Well, well, well, it’s time for Chinese New Year once again.
Intrigued but mystified by this most important of traditional Chinese
holidays? We’ll lead you through the top five festive Chinese dishes and their symbolic meanings. With these snacks in hand, you can enjoy a happy, auspicious
and prosperous New Year!

1. Nian gao 年糕

Image via @yvonnepianoharp/Instagram

, or rice cake, is made from glutinous rice and is very popular
during Chinese New Year, although it can be eaten year-round. People
consider eating nian gao during this time to be good luck because the
name is a homophone of ‘higher year.’ ‘Nian’ (sticky) is identical in sound to ‘年,’ meaning ‘year,’ while the word ‘gao’ (cake) is identical in sound to ‘高,’ meaning ‘high’ or ‘tall.’ As such,
eating nian gao symbolizes self-improvement: raising oneself taller and
doing better in the coming year.

The sticky and sweet snack is
made differently in various regions of China. In Ningbo, white watermill nian gao is most popular, while in Wenzhou, brown sugar rice cakes are
the most prized (it’s believed that they lead to a ‘sweetened life’). In the North, these sweet cakes are either steamed or fried, while
in the South, there are nian gao soups and stir-fries in both sweet and
savory flavors.

2. Tangyuan 汤圆

Image via @eileeentay/Instagram

Made from glutinous rice flour, these ball-shaped dumplings are cooked and served in boiling water, the name tangyuan in Chinese a homophone
for ‘union.’ Large or small, filled or unfilled, they are traditionally
eaten during the New Year and Lantern Festival, and can also be served
as a dessert at wedding banquets, Winter Solstice Festivals or any
occasions symbolizing family togetherness.

Taste preferences can
change between the northern and southern regions of China. Generally
speaking, people in the South prefer sweet fillings, which usually consist of
sugar, sesame, sweet bean paste, osmanthus flowers or sweetened
tangerine peel. In the North, people prefer salty fillings like minced
meat and vegetables. In Shanghai, however, both fillings are eaten.
Which style is better? You decide.

3. Jiaozi 饺子

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the most famous food associated with Chinese New Year, jiaozi dumplings
are believed to bring prosperity, thanks to the fact that they look
like the gold ingots (yuan bao) used as currency during the
Ming Dynasty. The name also sounds like the word for the earliest paper
money. Many families eat jiaozi on Chinese New Year’s Eve or on the
first day of the year because it’s a homophone of ‘交子’ (jiaozi),
referring to the intersecting moment between the old year and the new;
eating them is believed to bring good fortune to the household.

of ground meat and/or vegetables, jiaozi can be cooked in boiling
water, steamed or fried to a golden crisp. In northern parts of the
country, these horn-shaped treats are eaten year-round as a main course.

4. Eight-treasure Rice 八宝饭 (ba bao fan)

Image via @persiko.nl/Instagram

served as the last dessert for a New Year’s Eve dinner, eight-treasure
rice is especially popular in the South, and is made from glutinous rice
steamed and mixed with lard, sugar and eight kinds of fruits or nuts.
These can include red dates, lotus seeds, longan, raisins, walnuts,
peanuts and more.

Each ingredient of the colorful and sweet
dessert has its own meaning. The lotus seeds represent a harmonious
married life, longan signifies reunion, red dates are wishes to have a
healthy baby, pumpkin seeds mean ‘safe and sound’ and other preserved
fruits symbolize life going smoothly. Although the ingredients have
gradually become simpler over time, the basics of this auspicious dish
have remained the same for generations.

5. Poon choi 盆菜

Image via @top_hongkong_restaurants/Instagram

Cantonese dish was first made in a Hong Kong fishing village during the
Song Dynasty (970-1279). Legend has it that, to serve the young Emperor
and his army who fled to the South during battles against invading
Mongol troops, locals collected the best ingredients available and
cooked them all together in wooden washbasins, since during wartime
there were not enough conventional pots and pans. Thus poon choi was
invented, usually served in large wooden, porcelain or metal basins due to its size and communal consumption.

Consisting of a variety of ingredients like pork, beef, lamb, chicken, duck, abalone, ginseng, shark fin, fish maw, prawns, crabs, fishballs, squid, dried shrimp, crispy pigskin, beancurd and Chinese radish,
this hearty dish is a unique combination served whenever there are
rituals, weddings, festivals and other celebrations.

This article was originally published on February 5, 2016. It has been updated and republished on January 19, 2020.

[Cover image via @grandcoloaneresort/Instagram]