This Chinese New Year has been pretty tame, compared to the constant festivities, outings, and reunions we had last year. This year, we remained in at home, barely even venturing outdoors. Instead, we stayed warm and cozy, spending a lot of quality time with our little diminishing family. This year’s celebrations could be summarized as a lot of good home cooked food, a lot of relaxation, and a lot of mahjong.
One thing we did do though. We celebrated all the right ways with all the food traditions. So this year, I thought it’d be fun to tell you a bit about typical Chinese New Year traditions.
Chinese New Year is pretty intense in China. It’s so important that everyone gets the entire week off of work. Usually that time is spent visiting different family members to wish them good luck and prosperity in the new year. Of course, this translates to a lot, a lot of eating. Chinese New Year is like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one holiday, magnified by 10, and then spread over a couple of weeks.
There are a lot of auspicious foods eaten during the celebrations. Usually the foods have lucky meaning because of how they sound or look. Here’s what my family got up to this Chinese New Year and some of the important traditions!
Chinese New Year Eve
This year, I made sure to get to Beijing on Chinese New Year Eve. This is traditionally a big family gathering night for a “ringing in the new year with luck” feast.
Normally, dumplings are eaten on Chines New Year Eve. Dumplings symbolize wealth and prosperity for the new year because they are shaped like ancient Chinese gold coins. The superstition is that the more you eat during the new year celebrations, the more wealthy you’ll become. I guess that’s a good reason to stuff yourself silly!
It’s important to make the dumplings by hand. My uncle prepared the dough and used a machine to squeeze it into sheets, from which he could cut into round pieces for the wrappers. The dumplings were wrapped by my aunt and grandma, while my only job was to transfer the wrappers from the kitchen to the dining table.
I think we made well over 150 dumplings that day.
Also, you should do any house cleaning you need to do on this day. 1) to start off the new year with a clean house, and 2) because any cleaning in the first few days of the new year could be sweeping away good luck.
1st day of Chinese New Year
On this day, a couple of extended family members came over to spend the day. We had a huge traditional CNY dinner – all homemade by my aunt and uncle, the masterchefs.
Here are just a couple of the traditional dishes:
Fish is a MUST for a lucky CNY feast. It’s an auspicious dish because the Chinese saying for fish is “yu”, which is also the same pronunciation as “abundance”. Thus, fish symbolizes that the year will have surplus. And tradition is that you’re supposed to leave parts of the fish to further symbolize surplus. However, I don’t think this is a family tradition for us. I think we just didn’t finish the fish because we have way too much food on the table. :P
This glass noodle + spinach dish is a family tradition from my aunt’s family. It’s tossed with a delicious secret recipe sauce that’s peppery and flavorful. She remembers her dad making a huge bowl of this for her large family every year. Both of her parents are now confined to hospital care, and she has continued this tradition.
Here’s my contribution to the family feast: prawn crackers flown all the way from Malaysia :P. This isn’t tradition (obviously), but just wanted to show it.
Noodles are another important traditional dish to eat on the first day of CNY. The long strands of noodles symbolize longevity. The longer the better. Again, my uncle made the noodles from scratch.
Noodles can be eaten many different ways, but my uncle made da lu mian (Chinese gravy noodles). This is a northern China noodle dish made of a thick broth loaded with veggies (and we also had shredded chicken). It’s very much a homestyle dish, so each family will have their own recipe and way of making it. I remember my mom always making this for us, and it’s the ultimate comfort food on a cold day!
Oh, and it was my uncle’s birthday! He was born on the first day of Chinese New Year of his year, and even though the date of CNY changes every year, that’s when we always celebrate his birthday.
This next one isn’t doesn’t specifically fit into a certain day, but more like just throughout the celebration. I think we actually ate this on the 2nd or 3rd day.
Sticky rice cake is usually a must during CNY. The reason for this is because the Mandarin pronunciation for sticky rice cake is nian gao (年糕), which also sounds like “every year higher” (meaning more and more success every year).
Sticky rice cake is a sweet “cake” made with sticky rice layered with red bean paste and/or date paste. My grandma likes to spruce hers up with chestnuts, cashews, and chocolate. I know the picture doesn’t look like anything (and maybe even a little gross), but it’s really good!
5th day of Chinese New Year
This day is known as po wu (破五), which literally means “break five”. The “break” means that the many bad luck taboos break on this day. This is another important day for family gatherings and feasts. So my aunt’s sisters’ families came over for the day.
Traditionally, Northern Chinese will celebrate with day with dumplings. It’s especially important to make the dumplings completely from scratch on this day. Any vegetables and minced meat for the filling need to be chopped completely by hand. The dough for the wrappers need to be cut and rolled by hand. My uncle prepared the meat while my aunts made the dough and wrapped the dumplings (I forgot to take a picture of this because I was too busy winning at mahjong.. oops).
Also, on this 5th day, you can start to sweep the house again, as the taboo has broken. Most shops and small businesses also re-open on this day. After the big feast, my grandma and I finally returned to her place after 6 days spent at my aunt and uncle’s.
7th day of Chinese New Year
This day was li chun (立春), or Coming of Spring. I believe li chun is on the same day every year, but this year just happened to occur on the 7th day of CNY. Perfect – just another reason to have a huge dinner! This is a holiday that signifies that winter is ending and that from this day forward, the days will get warmer and warmer.
To celebrate Coming of Spring, what else do we eat but… Chinese spring rolls (春餅)? My aunt and uncle came over for dinner to share this meal with us.
Chinese spring rolls is basically a variety of meats and veggies to be wrapped in a large soft doughy wrapper. It’s accompanied with a sweet dark bean sauce and spring onion sprigs. Think of it like a Chinese burrito. Standard dishes always include scrambled eggs, glass noodles, and bean sprouts. This is one of my favorite Chinese dishes!
I forgot to take a picture of how it looks assembled, so here’s an older picture from another time:
For my family, this day also marked the 1 year anniversary of my grandfather’s passing.
15th day of Chinese New Year
The 15th day is the last official day of CNY. Yep, we really know how to celebrate over 2 weeks of festivities. (We haven’t gotten to this day yet for 2017, but I figured I’ll still write about it.)
The 15th day is known as the Lantern Festival and is always the night of the first full moon of the new year. On this day all over China, glutinous rice balls (tang yuan, 汤圆) are made and eaten. The roundness of the rice balls symbolize togetherness and family gathering. This is the last day that the family will all gather together to celebrate CNY for the final night. After this day, things go back to normal and there are no more new year wishes.
Last year, I wrote an entire post about this including a step-by-step recipe for making the glutinous rice balls from scratch. Check it out here!
Maybe we didn’t do quite as many activities this year, but our time so far has been filled with warmth, tradition, and family. It’s been the perfect way to celebrate :).
Have you heard of any of these traditions before? Have you celebrated CNY before? If you’re from another country that celebrates CNY, let me know how you celebrate or if you have any of these traditions. I’m curious!