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Everything is a metaphor: Here's what to eat and avoid at Chinese New Year dinner

Don't cut the head off your chicken and stay away from squid. Dinnertime during Chinese New Year is filled with meaning and superstition.

Order dishes in pairs, don't cut the head off your chicken and stay away from squid

Food critic Lee Man and CBC Vancouver host and reporter Lien Yeung take a closer look at what makes up a Chinese New Year feast. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Chinese New Year is a celebration filled with metaphors and superstitions aimed at ushering in as much good luck as possible.

That begins at the dinner table for many Chinese families.

Here is the meaning and significance behind some of those traditions.

Twos are better than one

A conscious effort is made to have an even number of dishes on the table at Chinese New Year, which typically begins on the occasion's eve.

The belief is that good things come in pairs and odd numbers signify death.

"Number eight, number 12 — as long as it's a round number it's nice," explained Lee Man a food critic and cultural guide. "Number seven is the one to avoid."

Like 13, it's considered unlucky.

And order lots because the goal is to reflect the hope for an overabundance of food and blessings for the upcoming year.

What to eat

Popular Cantonese-style dishes at Chinese New Year are ones that have auspicious names.

Braised dried oysters, sea moss topped off with a shiitake mushroom — each signifying good fortune for Chinese New Year. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A variation of braised dried oysters, sea moss, and pig's tongue, or fat choy ho see sun lei, is a common choice.

"It actually means money, enterprise, and everything coming easily to you all year so whatever you try out will be a success," says Man. 

Oysters are also desirable because they resemble ancient gold nuggets known as sycee.

Watch CBC's Lien Yeung and food critic Lee Man look at what makes up a Chinese New Year feast: 

Chinese New Year is a celebration filled with metaphors and superstitions. Here's the meaning and significance behind some of those traditions. 3:10

At home, many families will steam fish and chicken but they're always served whole, says Man, to represent togetherness.

The heads and tails are left on because "beak-to-tail means good beginning and good endings."

If you've got nautical roots, don't turn the fish over even after you've removed the bones to ward off any suggestion of a boat capsizing.

Those who are pious tend to go vegetarian on New Year's Day.

The egg white wrap is meant to resemble ancient Chinese coin pouches. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
A traditional vegetarian item served at temples is Buddha's Feast, or lo han jai, filled with vegetables such as beans, carrots, baby corn and bean curd. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But even then, dishes like bamboo pith-wrapped enoki mushrooms and egg white pockets or Buddha's veggie feast are filled with references for prosperity.

"Even though you're vegetarian, you're pure of heart, you still want money," says Man. "Those little packets represent old fashioned coin purses."

On the second day of the New Year, many families feast again. But dinner happens after making an offering of gratitude for the previous year to Buddha, the money god or ancestors.

A cook at Kirin Seafood Restaurant in New Westminster roasts a suckling pig for Chinese New Year in January, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
A roasted suckling pig is served beside buns, or mantou, shaped like 2020's year of the rat. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Roasted pork is commonly used for the ritual but hand-roasted suckling pig that's been rubbed in spices and sauces is an extravagant alternative.

For dessert, sweet and sticky year cake, is served typically only during this time of year.

Made from glutinous rice flour, the name leen goh offers the promise of reaching heights.

A brown sugar-based year cake sits next to a sea of green jello filled with more swimming leen goh. (Lien Yeung/CBC)

What to avoid

To ensure an auspicious New Year, there are specific dishes that most families tend to avoid.

Man says they never order squash.

"Because squash, or gwa, sounds like death," he says.

Squid and crab are also foods to stay away from. Stir-fried squid is slang for getting fired.

When it comes to crab, the Cantonese pronunciation sounds too much like a depressing sigh of exasperation — hai.

None of these are rules though, every family celebrates and honours the tradition in different ways.

What is universal, is the hope for good health and wealth for all.

About the Author

Lien Yeung

@LienYeung

Lien Yeung is a host and reporter with CBC Vancouver News. She has covered stories locally and nationally from Halifax to Victoria on television, radio and online. Find her on Instagram or Twitter @LienYeung or via email at lien.yeung@cbc.ca.

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