Food and Lunar New Year

by Emily Tang (’26) | February 3, 2023

Art by Megan Wang (’25)

Red and gold lanterns, sweet and spicy aromas, and the sounds of laughter and music envelope the street. With roots tracing back to the Shang Dynasty over three thousand years ago, Lunar New Year is celebrated across the globe, from its origins in China to the bustling streets of San Francisco. The festivities, although commonly mistaken to last just a single day, actually occur between the end of January and the first fifteen days, a full moon cycle, of the first month on the lunar calendar. This year the cycle ran from January 22 to February 1. 

Though many often generalize it as “Chinese New Year,” several other cultures also celebrate the Lunar New Year: Korea (Seollal), Vietnam (Tết), Japan (Shōgatsu), and Mongolia (Tsagaan Sar). The start and end dates vary depending on the culture, but they all occur around late January to early February. 

Chinese culture contains twelve zodiac signs that cycle each year, with every new year marking the beginning of a new zodiac and its accompanying animal. For instance, 2022 was the Year of the Tiger, and 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit, as was 2011. These animals also apply to a person’s birth year, similar to the astrological zodiac but centered on years, not months. The Rabbit symbolizes the moon, pure in its quiet beauty. It is also said to be based on the shadows of the full moon which vaguely resemble a rabbit. People born in the Year of the Rabbit are said to be extremely polite, respectful, and responsible. However, they may be subject to some self-consciousness and doubt. 

Perhaps one of the most important elements of a traditional Chinese New Year is the massive dinner shared with as much family as possible, sometimes even close friends. Communities eat a number of dishes during New Year’s, mostly depending on the region. Some common threads among them include, but are not limited to, dumplings (饺子), steamed fish (水煮鱼), sticky rice cakes (年糕), and tangyuan (汤圆). Many of these foods manifest good fortune, wealth, and a healthy body for the new year.

Dumplings are among the reigners of this long list of foods, as their ingot shape symbolizes wealth and prosperity. Families gather around a table set with bowls of filling, flour, and homemade dumpling wrappers. Each family’s dumplings get filled and crimped in an array of different ways. The table is set with seemingly endless plates of spicy cucumber salad, spring rolls, rice cake and cabbage stew, and pickled vegetables. Platters upon platters of dumplings cooked on the spot are brought out, so that every time one is finished, another is already out. 

Food is an essential part of Chinese culture. When China was still mostly rural, dinner was the one of the only times during the day that everyone in the family was together in one place. Every ounce of food has value, and not a single grain of rice is wasted. It provides a way for those who are unable to return to their homelands a way to celebrate their heritage and tradition wherever they are.

Categories: Food

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