A Guide to the Chinese New Year Table

7 years ago

As an American, I celebrate Thanksgiving like everyone else -- with stuffing, green bean casserole and roast turkey every fall. But as an Asian American, I also get a second Thanksgiving, of sorts. Chinese New Year falls on a different date each year because of the lunar calendar, but it’s usually in February or March. It is symbolized by different animals, on a 12-year cycle -- this year it's the Year of the Rabbit. It’s always filled with a whole lot of food and family.

SINGAPORE - FEBRUARY 01: Customers buy tangerines and oranges, both being symbols of good luck and wealth, at a stall during the final days of street sales before the Chinese New Year on February 1, 2011 in Chinatown section of Singapore. Chinese around the world are welcoming the Year of the Rabbit, one of the most anticipated holidays on the Chinese calendar. In Singapore, the Chinese make up nearly 75% of the population. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Unlike the Thanksgiving ritual, a Chinese New Year’s Eve feast is filled with symbolism, as with many Chinese traditions.

Because it is sacrilege to cook on Chinese New Year Day (you’re not supposed to touch a knife or an open flame at any point during the day. It’s bad luck), the abundance of food also has a practical purpose. You’re supposed to eat the leftovers throughout the next day or so. These traditions were made before microwaves, after all.

A few must-haves on the Chinese New Year table:
  • A Whole Fish: It needs to be complete from head to tail to symbolize completion and wholeness. If you serve parts of it, your luck will be “cut off,” so to speak.
  • Tangerines: They look like gold bouillons in theory, so they symbolize wealth and luck in the new year. And leave the stem and leaves on! They’re also good luck.
  • Noodles: These are served on Chinese New Year AND on your birthday to symbolize a long life. And don’t bite, slurp! It’s not impolite to do so in the Chinese culture, and you cut off your luck if you bite your noodles.
  • Pomelo: This golden yellow fruit symbolizes abundance and prosperity
  • Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, watermelon, etc.): Fertility and abundance
  • Black Moss Seaweed: The stringy look of this dish symbolizes long life and wealth
  • Bamboo Shoots: Wealth and new beginnings
  • Chicken: Family and happiness, and of course, must be served whole (just like the fish)
  • Eggs: Fertility (of course)

This is just a partial list, but everything on the table during the holiday is very intentional.

So go on, this Chinese New Year’s Eve (which also falls on Groundhog Day and my daughter’s birthday) celebrate with a bowl of your favorite noodles, some chicken or fish, and then have a tangerine or two for dessert. Your year should be brimming with good luck.

More on Chinese New Year's Food and Traditions

Do you celebrate Chinese New Year's Eve with a feast tonight? What's on your table?

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