A First-Timer’s Guide to Lunar New Year

published Feb 4, 2016
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Credit: Noah Fecks; LUCKYRICE

The Chinese Lunar New Year is the world’s most widely celebrated festivity, but it can also be the most intimidating for the uninitiated — especially when it comes to feasting, which is at the heart of this holiday. Between the preparation for feasting and the feasting itself, there are many, many rules. Here are a few to help newcomers navigate the New Year festivities.

Prep for the New Year

First of all, there’s the ritual of prepping for the New Year, which involves shopping for new clothes (for a fresh start); wearing red (an auspicious color); and cutting your hair before the holidays, but not during (scissors and anything sharp = “cutting” into and thus “shortening” your lifespan). Also, clean your house (to ward off evil spirits) and serve everything in eights, or at least in pairs (for harmony and wealth since the number eight, ba, is a homophone for wealth, fa, in Chinese).

All this — and we have yet to feast!

Eat Lucky Foods

Speaking of feasts, New Year celebrations bring out the best in Chinese cooks, with dishes like shark’s fin soup, Peking roast duck, steamed sea bass, dumplings, and braised vegetables. The table is abundant with delicious and also lucky foods that will usher in auspiciousness for the new year: oranges for wealth, sticky rice for a prosperity (nian gao translates literally into “year high,” or “to rise higher”). Since the shape of jiaozi, or Chinese dumplings, are similar to ancient gold or silver ingots, they, along with oranges, also symbolize wealth. Try making your own tang yuan, rice balls (similar to mochi) filled with sweet sesame paste in a ginger sauce.

Rice dishes and sweet steamed rice flour cakes, which symbolize the recurring and life-giving qualities of rice; red foods (adzuki beans, pomegranates), which symbolize the color of happiness; green foods (broccoli, peas, bok choy), which symbolize the color of jade or wealth all flourish on New Year’s tables. Long, uncut noodles, a symbol of longevity, hold the highest place. All Chinese celebrate their birthday on the seventh day of New Year’s celebrations, and the oldest family member gets the longest uncut noodles.

Another imperative part of a Chinese New Year feast is yu, or fish, which must always be served whole (with tail and head intact) so as to ensure wholeness in the coming year for not only yourself, but also those at your dinner table. And when serving the fish, always make sure the head of the fish is pointed to the guest of honor (who is often the oldest person at the table). So go ahead and give that lazy Susan a spin so that the head of the fish is properly aligned … that is, if your own head isn’t spinning by now.

Avoid Unlucky Foods

In addition to the aforementioned “lucky” foods, there are also a few to avoid. For example, serving lobster at your New Year’s celebration is an absolute no-no, as they move backwards and could therefore lead to setbacks for you and your party in the year ahead. Don’t even think about eating fried chicken — the consumption of anything winged is discouraged, as your good luck could fly away. Because the chicken scratches backwards, it would result in yearlong regret and dwelling on the past.

Don’t Worry, Be Lucky

If this seems like a lot of rules to follow for a party, that is because it is. Don’t worry about accidentally indulging in a piece of fried chicken or forgetting to dust your room. Even though I make my living running Asian food and culture festivities, I still make plenty of cultural faux pas at the dinner table, like sticking chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, which is a signifier for burial rituals (yikes!).

All in all, just remember this: Eat a lot, drink even more, talk loudly, burp with gusto, and repeat, stopping every so often to remind yourself of how lucky you are.