11 Lucky Foods to Eat for Chinese New Year
These traditional Chinese New Year foods can help you put some luck in your corner as you welcome 2022’s Year of the Tiger.
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Chinese New Year foods that bring good fortune
As much as Chinese New Year traditions are centered on seeing friends and family and enjoying a feast of epic proportions, the Lunar New Year is also a chance to stack the deck in your favor. The Chinese are a superstitious bunch, and we believe that you have the power to guide your juju and get a head start in the year to come. One big way to do that? By serving lucky Chinese New Year food at the holiday’s reunion dinner—the big meal enjoyed the night before the calendar changes over and we officially hit Spring Festival mode.
This isn’t just about revisiting old favorites or unique dishes. These foods are packed with symbolism that create a harbinger of glad tidings and good fortune. As we enter the Year of the Tiger on February 1, you might want to incorporate some of these lucky foods on your own menu to help make 2022 as fierce and amazing as possible. Learn more about how to approach the Year of the Tiger by reading up on your Chinese zodiac signs.
Whole fish (Da yu)
Symbol: Prosperity and abundance
The most important feature of the Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner table is the presence of the “big fish.” The word for fish has a similar sound to the word for surplus, and homophonic wordplay is the primary guiding principle of lucky Lunar New Year foods. “Whole fish shows up on the table for Chinese New Year because it symbolizes togetherness, as it’s served uncut from head to tail,” says Atlanta-based Asian pop-up chef Candy Hom, founder of Soupbelly. It also denotes the ability to see things through. Plus, says chef Tara Lazar of F10 Creative, “fish move forward, never backward. Chinese culture likes this symbolism.”
A common preparation is to gut and steam a large fish of your choice—my father, retired Chinese chef You Feng Lin, prefers a fat sea bass—with julienned ginger and scallions. Then, you add a dark, soy-based sauce and finish with a generous pour of sizzling oil. Once plated, it’s served with the head facing the most senior or honored guest. When one side is fully consumed, the bones are removed, but “the fish is never flipped,” cautions Hom, “as that would be bad luck.” Other rules and preparation vary by Chinese region, but leaving some of the fish, even if it’s just the head or a bite of tail, is customary to ensure plenty for the new year. For more good luck, feng shui experts suggest tossing these home items.
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“Big meat” (Da rou)
Symbol: Strength, peace, and abundance
Everyday Chinese cuisine tends to be vegetable-heavy, with proteins diced or minced to stretch out their effect. But Chinese New Year is the time to pull out the stops with generous cuts of meat, entire animals, and fancier options. “I believe this ties back to the old days when a year’s productivity was measured by the returns of the farm,” says Michael Wang, founder and CEO of MÓGŪ Enterprises.
The more meat there was to spare for this one meal, the better the circumstances were for that family. History supports this idea. While China has made great strides in eradicating poverty, the country has a long past of struggling against it, and that’s the primary driver for much of what is considered lucky when it comes to Chinese New Year foods.
Pork is often the da rou of choice, appearing in many forms. This makes sense, as China is the world’s top consumer of this type of meat, as well as the producer of half the world’s stock of it. Every year, my father fries it, bathes it in sauce, puts it in soup, roasts the ribs, and also prepares a special wine-braised pork belly. If you want to take things up a notch, beef and lamb are excellent additions and symbols for strength and greatness in the new year.
Symbol: Unity and loyalty
Duck is one of the most popular dishes at Chinese New Year dinner, whether you’re celebrating at home or at a restaurant in one of America’s Chinatowns. It symbolizes loyalty, and according to chef Han Lijun of Z&Y Restaurant in San Francisco, Peking Duck is a particularly great choice for good fortune because of its reddish hue—the luckiest color in Chinese culture.
“We serve our slow-roasted Peking Duck thinly sliced, wrapped in thin pastry, and topped with hoisin sauce, cucumbers, and scallions,” says Lijun. However, China is a big country, and superstitions vary. “We’ve never eaten duck for New Year’s because I grew up in a household that actually considers it unlucky!” Hom confesses.
On the other hand, chicken is one bird the whole country can get behind as a lucky Chinese New Year food. Served whole, it’s a symbol of family unity and togetherness. Similar to fish, it should arrive at the table fully intact, ideally with head and all, and be pointed at your most venerable guest. Typically, though, it’s first offered at the family altar in remembrance of those missed at the dinner table, so it’s not uncommon for the chicken to be a cold dish like Hainanese Chicken. Hom’s family and mine often accent this simple poached chicken with a ginger scallion dipping oil.
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Symbol: Happiness, vitality, beauty, and auspiciousness
As mentioned earlier, red is the luckiest color in Chinese culture. It’s a nod to the life-giving properties of the “red” sun up above, and the color of fortune and power—so much so that stock exchange index rises in China are shown in red and falls in green. So, of course, red foods are often incorporated during Chinese New Year celebrations.
Char siu, or roast barbecue pork, is the most common and accessible form it takes, its shining lacquered tones adding vibrant brightness to the holiday spread. As a traditionally Hong Kong/Cantonese dish, it appears on Hom’s table every year, and Lin often makes red-sauced ribs for his. He also includes red shellfish—such as Dungeness crabs, Cantonese-style ginger and scallion lobster, and head-on boiled prawns—on the menu. Just as in the West, these crustaceans are considered a symbol of fortune and wealth to many…but not all.
Hom was actually taught to avoid crabs and lobsters for this important meal. “Since [crabs] move sideways, you won’t be able to move forward in the new year,” leaving you stagnant, she explains. “Lobsters, unlike fish, can move backward, which can mean setbacks in the new year, as well.” Symbolism is also a big component of the Chinese zodiac elements.
Longevity noodles (Yi mein)
Symbol: Long life
The Chinese are not only the original inventors of noodles—they are also undisputed noodle masters. From hand-pulled to knife-cut, wheat to egg to rice and even mung beans, there are many delicious options. But for Chinese New Year, you really only have to get familiar with one: yi mein. These springy noodles are unique for their length and texture. They’re treated with sodium bicarbonate, which gives them a distinctly neutral flavor and an incredibly bouncy feel to the tooth. But it’s how remarkably endless they feel as you devour this noodle that makes them a lucky food.
While all long noodles are technically a symbol of longevity and should never, ever be cut, yi mein is special for being longer than most. And that makes it fun, as the longer your noodle, the longer your life is foretold to be. So go ahead and slurp away! Because honestly, you won’t want to stop, and not just because you’re feeling competitive. Before the new year, you may also want to place these items in your home for good health, according to feng shui experts.
Potstickers or dumplings (Guotie or jiaozi)
Particularly for those whose ancestry traces to Northern China, the making of dumplings is a family bonding activity. That’s why the dumpling-making scene in Crazy Rich Asians resonated so hard with so many Chinese Americans. But dumplings are considered a lucky Chinese New Year food because the traditional crescent shape looks similar to the Chinese gold and silver ingots historically used for currency. And the more dumplings, the more wealth you’re manifesting, so it’s all hands on deck to make that figurative money.
“Dumplings with many pleats are more popular during the new year,” says Hom. “The saying goes, ‘The more pleats it has, the more money you will receive,’ and I was taught that more pleats taste better, too!”
Although the shape is prescribed, the fillings allow room for interpretation. As long as you avoid Chinese sauerkraut (suan cai), a “poverty” ingredient, you’re fine. Shrimp, chicken, beef, vegetables, and, of course, pork are all fair game, and they can be boiled, steamed, or pan- or deep-fried. FYI, although boiling them is less labor-intensive, it is no less lucky. In the West, these are the New Year’s foods that are supposed to bring good luck.
Spring rolls (Za chun juan)
As much as ingots were accepted as the official shape for precious metal in ancient China, bars and sticks were not uncommon. A great counterpart to dumplings are spring rolls, which are deep-fried golden and become edible stand-ins for exactly that.
Not to be confused with rice-paper-rolled summer rolls, these small crunchy cylinders are filled with anything from ground pork to mushrooms to red bean paste and translucent noodles. They’re well known as a common and popular appetizer, particularly for Hong Kong-style dim sum, but pop up as Chinese New Year lucky foods in Eastern China. For that reason, spring rolls don’t show up on Wang’s typical holiday menu, but do on Hom’s. “Spring rolls are one of the luckiest foods to us,” she says of her family’s gathering.
Glutinous rice cake (Nian gao)
Symbol: Growth, elevation, and progress
If you thought dumplings were open to interpretation, wait until you start looking at nian gao recipes! Despite their Anglicized name, these cakes have no gluten in them. Rather, they’re translated as “glutinous” for their binding, stretchy, chewy nature. Think mochi texture—it’s the same sticky rice dough utilized for different purposes.
Nian gao can be sweet or savory. The former is what you’ll find most often, sweetened with sugar and designed to be a dessert-like treat. This version can be made individually like little siu mai or cupcakes. You might also see them steamed and chilled in a cake pan with good luck patterns or mosaics made of auspicious ingredients like red Chinese dates (jujubes) embedded into them. You can even deep-fry the batter and fill it with other mashed sweets, like the dates, chestnut, or red bean paste.
Meanwhile, Shanghai is known for the savory type. The nian gao for stir-frying are usually shaped into thick batons or cut into oval slices, sold frozen in Asian grocery stores.
No matter how you choose to prepare glutinous rice cakes, the luck you’re willing into the Year of the Tiger is the same. This traditional ingredient gets its auspiciousness from the fact that breaking down the word translates to “higher/taller year,” symbolizing general growth. Eating any version of this Chinese New Year food is meant to usher in improvements in fortune, income, health, business, knowledge, or even just height for the little ones. Here are more things that symbolize good luck around the world.
Sweet rice balls (Tang yuan)
Symbol: Family togetherness
Popular and important to Southern Chinese families in particular, tang yuan is eaten from the Reunion Dinner until the Lantern Festival—the official end of the Spring Festival celebrations that begin with Chinese New Year. Its spherical shape symbolizes the wholeness of a family, and serves as a well wish that all members can be together in the new year.
Like nian gao, it’s made of glutinous rice flour, which means it’s sticky, chewy, doughy, and fun to eat. These little balls are often stuffed, and like dumplings, the filling is up to your personal preference. Common ones include sesame, red bean paste, and jujube for sweet versions, or minced meat or nuts for savory ones. Lin makes a peanut paste with crunchy peanuts and peanut butter, and floats them in a sweet, syrupy broth as a combination of both. And while the name of the dish literally means “round balls in soup,” it sounds like the Chinese word for reunion. Don’t miss these other global New Year’s traditions to get 2022 started right.
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Symbol: Family togetherness and prosperity
Although pure white foods are typically taboo for Chinese New Year, since it’s the symbolic color of death in Chinese culture, there are ways to get around it to reap the superstitious benefits of the food you want to incorporate into your Reunion Dinner. Eggs are one of them.
Lin fries whole eggs and pops them into a soup to bob happily among balls made of minced fish stuffed with pork—a heaping bowl of spherical foods that symbolize familial togetherness and unity. Hom turns them into soy sauce eggs.
“Eggs symbolize fertility and are usually added to another dish that is being prepared, such as red braised pork belly, for example,” she says. “Just add a few hard-boiled, peeled eggs into the braising liquid to steep and you have wonderfully flavored eggs.” And they’re in an appropriate shade! All that said, no matter the exterior color of the egg, the yellow yolk is considered lucky because it symbolizes revealed gold.
Symbol: Happiness and fullness
The go-to Chinese dessert is seasonal, fresh-cut fruit, and the Lunar New Year dinner is no exception. However, for this holiday, requirements are a bit more specific than usual. Whole oranges, tangerines, mandarins, grapefruit, pomelos, and even persimmons or kumquats are traditional and even expected hostess gifts to bring to a Chinese New Year meal or any gathering during the 15-day Spring Festival season.
Again, their spherical nature makes them generally lucky, their juicy round shape giving off a feeling of fullness in life and spirit, but their loosely interpreted “golden” hue is a reflection of a wish for wealth. Plus, their bright, cheerful colors have become synonymous with happiness and joy, a spot of sunshine in the cold winter months. Even more, the word for oranges and tangerines sounds similar to that for success, and the character for luck is literally in the word for tangerine.
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With all this talk of gold, there’s one rule that’s more golden than any other: There must be leftovers! “It means you will have extra food for your family into the next year,” says Hom. Therefore, don’t ever feel intimidated by the bounty on the reunion dinner table—this is one case when it’s taboo to join the clean plates club.
In an interesting reversal of general etiquette, it’s actually considered bad luck and embarrassing for the host if every bite goes. It hints at meagerness and a lack of enough resources to entertain, and to run out of food is a sign of sparse fortune and want in the year to come.
So, as tempted as you may be to eat all of the delicious Chinese New Year food until you burst, be sure to save some for later. You want to keep the celebration going with plenty of extras to dig into the next day. After all, what’s better than Chinese leftovers?