Chinese New Year Food: 8 Must-Try Traditional Dishes

In Chinese culture, the family is of great importance as it is the foundation of society. The significance of the family is most apparent in the Chinese New Year food they prepare during what they consider to be the most important holiday of the year. Read on Chinese New Year

a plate of dumplings prepared with sauce and various vegetables
Make your celebration of the Chinese New Year more memorable with these dishes!

To the Chinese, celebrating New Year’s Eve dinner with the entire family is a necessity. Every member of the family has to be present. In fact, when some members are away, the rest of the family still have to leave space for them and place a set of utensils where they should be.

According to the legend of the Spring Festival, a monster by the name of Nian would come to terrorize villages around New Year’s Eve. The people would seek shelter in their homes, prepare a feast with offerings to the gods, and hope for the best. If you’re interested in Chinese folklore, see our list of classic Chinese New Year myths.

Among many things, the Chinese take immense pride in their cuisine. As a result, a lot of thought is put into the menu prepared for the family during the most important annual holiday.

Chinese New Year dishes are created with the thought of bringing blessings in the coming year. Thus, their names and appearance represent wishes for prosperity, happiness, and propitiousness. Although the customs differ from region to region, the Chinese New Year food below are some of the most popular food you see on the table during the celebration.

Dumplings

Popular in the northern region of China, dumplings are served at nearly every Chinese occasion. However, their significance is most notable during the celebration of Chinese New Year.

a plate of dumplings, the chinese new year food prepared with sauce and various vegetables
Dumplings are usually prepared with sauce and various vegetables.

In Chinese, dumplings or jiǎo zi (饺子) sound similar to jiāo zi (交子). Jiāo (交) means “exchange,” while zi (子) pertains to the midnight hours when dumplings are supposed to be wrapped. Taken together, jiāo zi is basically the exchange between the previous year and the new year. In other words, eating dumplings sends away the old and welcomes the new.

Spring Rolls

Among all the common Chinese New Year food prepared during the occasion, spring rolls are probably the most popular. In the southern region of China, they are served during the Spring Festival to celebrate the beginning of spring. Spring rolls are also highly versatile food as they can be consumed as a dinner dish or appetizers. They are also sometimes served as delicious Chinese New Year snacks.

spring rolls served with sauce and a coriander leaf as garnish
Springs rolls can also be served with special sauce and garnish.

Most people are familiar with fried spring rolls. However, they can also be served steamed or baked. Spring rolls also come in different shapes and sizes. They can be served in the form of small rectangles to large and flat circles.  

Nian Gao

Also known as rice cake, nian gao is also among the must-try Chinese New Year dishes. It is usually made of sticky glutinous rice or yellow rice which gives the dish its signature color and texture.

sweet chinese new year food nian gao topped with dried jujube dates
Nian gao is often topped with dried jujube dates.

In ancient China, nian gao were only prepared as offerings to ancestors and gods. Throughout the years, they have become a staple that is served during the Spring Festival and is now widely available in stores every day of the year.

Nian gao are usually steamed with meat and vegetables. In Northern China, sugar is mixed with the glutinous rice powder to produce a sweet flavor. It is also common to dip nian gao in white sugar. If you’re into treats like the nian gao, see our list of six other sweet Chinese New Year desserts!

Hot Pot

Many consider the hot pot as the centerpiece of Spring Festival celebrations. The hot pot is also one of those Chinese New Year food with a long history. During the Qing dynasty, Emperor Qianlong frequently held feasts for old and retired officials. The hot pot served with meat was always on the table during these festivities.

Despite its popularity, the hot pot is a fairly simple dish that is easy to prepare. It is basically a boiling pot with broth served with uncooked meat and vegetables along with dipping sauce. The meat and vegetables are thrown in the pot to be cooked and then consumed. The hot pot is also highly customizable that every other dish mentioned here goes well with it!    

a boiling bot of broth with served with various vegetables
Hot pot is served with various vegetables and meat to be cooked in boiling broth.

Vegetable Dishes

Since spring is the ideal season to plant new seeds, the Spring Festival is traditionally the perfect time to make use of all the vegetables stored and preserved from the winter. Also, these Chinese New Year dishes are arguably the most healthy options!

a vegetable dish cooked with ginger, various greens, and pieces of chicken
Chicken, shrimp, and other kinds of meat may also be added to vegetable dishes.

The countryside vegetarian stir-fry is a salad usually containing mushrooms, jujube, Chinese cabbage along with typical greens.
The most popular vegetables added to the countryside vegetarian stir-fry include:

  • Seaweed – a symbol of wealth and fortune
  • Lotus seeds – blessings for many children and a healthy family
  • Bamboo shoots – a symbol for longevity and moving onward
  • Muskmelon – a symbol for family and hope
  • Osmanthus flower petals – represents the noble and precious
  • Leek/chives – blessings for longevity
  • Poria mushrooms – symbols for wealth and fortune

Steamed Chicken

In Chinese culture, a whole chicken is a symbol of family. Because this dish is rich in protein, it is enough to feed an entire family. Aside from symbolizing family, chicken also represents reunion and rebirth.

a plate of the popular chinese new year dish steamed with ginger and different vegetables
Steamed chicken can also be cooked with ginger and various vegetables.

After the chicken is cooked, it is first offered to the ancestors. This is because praying for protection and blessing from forefathers is still a significant part of Spring Festival celebrations.

The main workers of the family are supposed to eat the chicken’s feet for them to be able to grasp onto wealth. On the other hand, some people keep the head and claws of the chicken as blessings for success.

Steamed Fish

Another must-try on our list of Chinese New Year food, the steamed fish symbolizes surplus and wealth. A whole fish also represents a harmonious and complete family.

During the feast, only half of the fish is eaten while the other half is saved for the following day. This is done to prolong the surplus and ensure that the future is prosperous.

whole steamed fish topped with chopped onion leaves
Whole steamed fish is often topped with chopped onion leaves.

After the celebration, the head and tail of the fish – usually a big-headed carp – is left intact. This serves as a reminder to finish everything that is started as a blessing for positive results.

In some regions, red peppers are added after the fish is steamed. The color red is a lucky color and the spice expresses wishes for a fiery and successful business.

Noodles

Last but definitely not the least, noodles are another staple in the table during Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner. Noodles are commonly served with dumplings and are referred to as gold silk and gold ingots, expressing wishes for wealth and prosperity. Especially for the Chinese New Year, extra-long noodles are served as symbols of longevity. The longer the noodles, the longer your life will be.

a bowl of hakka noodles cooked with various vegetables and topped with sesame seeds
Hakka noodles served with various kinds of vegetables topped off with sesame seeds.

Noodles are also highly versatile. They can be served with various kinds of vegetables and meat which, of course, also have their respective symbolic meanings.

  • Eggs – health family
  • Lobster or shrimp – wealth and fortune
  • Roasted pig – peace
  • Duck – loyalty
  • Peaches – longevity
  • Tofu – happiness
  • Fish – surplus and wealth

These Chinese New Year dishes take a large part of Chinese culture. Even though many of the traditions of the Spring Festival are largely tailored to fit the modern times, it is a certainty that the Chinese food culture will remain.  

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3 thoughts on “Chinese New Year Food: 8 Must-Try Traditional Dishes”

  1. This is a great example of a great idea. Not only is the recipe for these things, not a good one, but it is also so well known that people find it hard to use them for all sorts of reasons.

    Reply
  2. The Chinese have the cheapest kitchen. They have the least amount of fresh dishes. I think the author should have called this a serious thing. Also, “fresh dishes are the best ingredients” isn’t a great phrase. Most dishes do “flavors.” But the average restaurant owner is often more likely to drink them or cook dinner. I think that a lot of Chinese restaurants should find this article more useful.

    Reply
  3. Why does California celebrate Cinco de Mayo and not Chinese New Year?

    I think Chinese people, including people who own Chinese restaurants, should have Chinese New Year parades and parties.

    Let us not support just one culture but ALL cultures!

    Reply

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