The Ultimate Guide For The Lunar New Year

Lunar New Year

Written by Emilee Petkus | Edited By: Carol Coutinho

February 9, 2021

We are approaching the Lunar New Year on February 12, one of the most important holidays within China. Beginning with the first new moon of the lunar calendar and ending on the first full moon, the holiday consists of 15 days full of festivities (1). Originally, the holiday revolved around farmers taking a break from the fields in order to pray for a good harvest in the upcoming year. As time passed, the meaning has shifted a bit. While the coming of spring is still celebrated, the holiday is now more focused on simply spending time with family, hoping for new beginnings, and sharing bounteous amounts of food. (20)

Celebrated by over 20% of the entire world, this holiday is not only observed in China but in other Asian countries as well, including Korea and Vietnam. In fact, the arrival of the Lunar New Year sparks the largest human migration. As the holiday revolves around reuniting with family and friends, millions travel back to their hometowns in order to perform special rituals and cook traditional foods.

Chinese Lunar New Year

A large feast consisting of countless traditional dishes is vital to the Lunar New Year. Everyone part of the family is expected to make their way back home before the holidays. If someone is unable to, their place at the table is left vacant with a spare set of utensils laid out for them. This way they will not be forgotten amidst the festivities.  (2)

The foods included in the feast are also steeped in tradition and hold special meanings. It is on the table and amongst the various dishes where ingredients and auspicious beliefs intertwine. In the end, we are left with delicious meals absolutely brimming with cultural significance. While dishes can vary between each region, the following are common staples that can be found within every household during the Spring Festival.

Traditional Foods

Dumplings

dumplings

If you ever visit Northern China during the Lunar New Year, expect to see a lot of dumplings. (2)  This dish has actually been around for 1,800 years.  (14)  In fact, it was once customary to eat dumplings with every single meal during the 15 days! Rules have since relaxed, and people just enjoy them a couple of times. (2) Dumplings are present for almost every special occasion but are particularly important during the Lunar New Year. The dish is classically thought to represent wealth, due to its shape representing silver ingots. A lucky dumpling will be made with a lot of pleats, as a flat dumpling is a bad omen for prosperity in the upcoming year. (14)

The filling will vary depending on personal taste; however, most are commonly filled with Chinese cabbage, green onion, pork, and shrimp. Some provinces have specialties compared to other areas of China. For example, egg-filled dumplings are popular in the Suzhou province, as the yellow filling represents gold and the dumpling a silver ingot. Both are important to bring in good fortune. Watch out when chowing down though! Sometimes a random coin will be added into one special dumpling, bringing great luck to whoever finds it. (2)

Spring Rolls

Spring Rolls

Spring Rolls are a staple dish within Southern China and replace the role of dumplings by symbolizing wealth and prosperity. They can be fried, steamed, or baked and are typically filled with pork, Chinese cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and seasonings. (2) There is even a lucky saying for eating spring rolls, which goes “Hwung-Jin Wan-Lyang” or “a ton of gold” (3)

Longevity Noodles

longevity noodles

Noodles are a staple within Chinese cuisine; however, during the Lunar New Year, people purposely eat long noodles because they symbolize a long life. (2) Traditionally, these noodles are made from a single ball of dough that is stretched and folded repeatedly until it creates thin strands. (16)

Amazingly enough, you should even avoid cutting and chewing them as you eat because “the longer the noodle, the longer your life will be.” (2)

In general, noodle dishes have a ton of flexibility regarding ingredients and spices. It usually just depends on personal preference. (2) However, they often are paired with various vegetables and meats to make a full meal. (16)

Steamed Fish

steamed fish

Fish during the Chinese Lunar New Year represents surplus and wealth. In fact, the word “fish” in Chinese actually also sounds like ‘surplus.’ (14) Interestingly, half of the fish is eaten during the first dinner and the second half is saved for the next day. This is so that your wealth will not run out during the upcoming year. It is customary that the fish head should face the guest during the meal as well. (2) 

Each fish represents a wish for something different. A crucian carp is said to bring good luck in the new year whereas a Chinese mud carp will bring good fortune.  (14)

Steamed Chicken

steamed chicken

<a href=’https://www.freepik.com/photos/food’>Food photo created by topntp26 – www.freepik.com</a>

A symbol of family, reunion, and rebirth, steamed chicken is the first meal of the New Year within some areas of China, particularly Hubei. (2) Typically, the chicken is served whole after being marinated and steamed. (15) Each part of the chicken represents some different form of luck. The feet help you grab onto fortune, the wings help you “fly higher,” and the bones represent success. Before you start to enjoy this delicious dish, it must first be offered to the ancestors. Only then can the rest of the guests eat. (2)

Hot Pot

hot pot

Hot pot is the ultimate food for a gathering because it is completely customizable. There will be a bubbling pot of broth placed in the center of the table on a burner, surrounded by plates of uncooked meat and veggies. Everyone picks what they want, and then they throw it in the pot. (2) While the food cooks, everyone enjoys socializing. Dipping sauces can also be added throughout the table to add some extra flavor. (17) How perfect!

If you’re interested in trying this dish out, take a look at our healthy and healing hot pot recipes in our magazine.

Chinese Lunar New Year Traditions

Spring Lantern Festival

The Spring Lantern Festival marks the end of the Spring Festival and has been a tradition for at least 2000 years! The day is filled with moon gazing, lantern lighting, riddle guessing, and eating rice balls, known as tang yuan, that are served in a delicious hot broth. (19)(18) There are many different types of lantern, but the most common variation is the kongming which represents hope, success, and happiness. Make sure to think of a wish before lighting your kongming and releasing it into the sky! (19) These wishes are a similar tradition to western New Years resolutions. 

If you are celebrating at home, it may be best to forgo actually lighting your lantern. You can celebrate symbolically by simply writing your wish on the lantern instead for safety reasons to prevent any wildfires.

 

lantern festival
Lunar New Year Firecrackers

Setting Off Firecrackers

There is an old legend that a little boy one year had enough of Nian terrorizing his village. He went out into the streets and scared away the monster by shooting firecrackers at it.  (20) However, another legend states that a group of villages together recognized that burning drying bamboo created an explosive sound that scared away Nian. (21) Nonetheless, ever since then, everyone sets off their own as a way to ward off any monsters and bad luck that may be lurking around. (20)

Korean Lunar New Year (Seollal)

Unlike the Spring Festival, Seollal only lasts 3 days. The festivities and general meaning of the holiday remain the same though. Traditional foods are enjoyed and spending time with family and friends is emphasized above all else. There are many traditional foods that all Koreans enjoy during the New Year, some of which have special meanings.

Traditional Foods

Tteokguk (Rice Cake Soup)

Tteokguk is probably the most important food to eat during the New Year. This traditional soup is made of thinly sliced tteok (rice cakes), beef, egg, and vegetables. (4) Rice cakes, known for their length and stickiness, are thought to bring longevity and the hope that “good fortune, health, and happiness” will “stick” to you in the upcoming year. (5)  

Eating a bowl of tteokguk also symbolizes one growing another year older, as all Koreans have a birthday on the New Years. (6)

Mandu

mandu

Dumplings are a major part of the Lunar New Year in Korea as well. Making this dish takes an entire day due to how much work they require and subsequently gathers the family together. The filling can vary but kimchi mandu are a popular choice. (5)

Jeon

Jeon

You will find various types of these pancakes on any table during the Seollal feast. The most popular kinds are buchujeon made of garlic and chives, kimchi jeon made of kimchi, and saengseon jeon made of fish. (6)

Japchae

lunar new year

Made of glass sweet potato noodles, various vegetables, and sesame seed oil, Japchae is a staple dish in Korean cuisine. It is usually served as a side dish or an appetizer all year round, so it is no surprise that japchae will make an appearance during the New Years’ fest. (6)

Sikhye

After the meal, you may be served some sikhye to enjoy with your dessert. This is a moderately sweet punch made of fermented rice. It has a very unique, barley-like smell and is sweetened with sugar. You may even find small pieces of rice floating around in your drink. (7)

Korean Lunar New Year Traditions

Charye

Charye is the first ceremony performed during the Lunar New Year and revolves around honoring the family’s ancestors. Large amounts of food will be prepared the entire day before and presented on an altar. The family will make full two bows on their knees then bow half standing in respect. Afterward, everyone will then share the food they made as a way for the ancestors to give back hope and virtues. (8)

Sebae

Sebae happens every Lunar New Year in Korea and is a way for the children and their elders to pay respect to one another. All children will bow to their elders (parents will even bow to their parents), and say “saehae bok manee badesaeyo,” meaning “I wish you good fortune in the new year.” Once the child rises, the elder will place a small envelope of cash in the child’s silk pouch and give out advice and wisdom. A similar practice of giving lucky money takes place in China but with red envelopes. (5) (8)

Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet)

The length of Tết actually varies every year, usually ranging between 6-9 days. Just like the other countries, all family members are expected to make an appearance during the holiday. Vietnam also has a tradition of entirely cleaning the house before new years day. Sweeping during the holiday is strictly forbidden out of fear that you may accidentally brush away your good luck. This same tradition is also practiced in China as well.  (10)

Traditional Foods

The foods offered during Tết will vary by region and are dependent upon the local ingredients that people have access to.

Banh Chung (Vietnamese Square Sticky Rice Cake) 

Banh Chung has been part of the Lunar New Year for the longest and symbolizes a joining of the heavens, represented by the round banh day cake, and earth. The local ingredients and process of making these cakes help families show respect for their culture and ancestors. (12)(13) This delicacy is made of glutinous rice, pork, and mung beans wrapped into a square by bamboo leaves. After boiling them for 12 hours, the rice will have an amazing green color. There is also a slightly sweet, vegetarian version filled with just banana and mung bean. (9)

Gio Cha

Gio Cha is a special sausage made in Vietnam that is often coupled with starchy foods. There are three common kinds made during the Lunar New Year including ground pork mixed with fish sauce, beef, and the final one is a mixture of pork ear, nose, tongue, cheek, and mushrooms. They are traditionally served cold. (9)

Mut Tet

mut tet

Mut Tet is a mixture of candied fruit that is displayed in an ornate box for guests to snack on as they socialize. Often the box will have candied fruit, coconut and kumquat jam, and sugared apples. (9)

Vietnamese Lunar New Year Traditions

Xong Dat

During the Lunar New Year, the first visitor holds utmost importance as they will determine the family’s fortune for the rest of the year. In order to guarantee a good new year, the family will purposely choose someone with a “good temper, morality, and success.” (10)

Vietnamese lunar new year
Five Fruit tray

The “Five-Fruit Tray”

Laying out a tray with five different fruits is essential as it represents the family’s respect for their ancestors. Each individual fruit represents a different prayer for the future and demonstrates the Vietnamese people’s desire for a prosperous life. 

The tray also demonstrates the Vietnamese respect for all workers and that “when taking fruit, you should think of the grower.” (11)

Perhaps now that you learned about all these wonderful traditions and foods, you may be tempted to try them out for yourself. Well, go ahead! You can experience new cultures while gaining some luck in the process.

Let us know on Instagram (@cookandculture) if you try any of the recipes in our magazine. Happy Lunar New Year!

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