Deciphering the meanings of the items around the Chinese New Year table is a lot like a treasure hunt. Each individual dish is steeped in tradition and is a homonym for a particular wish in the upcoming year.
This year, the Spring Festival falls on January 18. For 15 days, Chinese families around the globe are returning to their homes for half a month of feasting, money-stuffed red envelopes and much-needed bonding. In China especially, where a migrant working culture is prevalent, the holiday is often the only time of year when people get to see their relatives.
Food is the cornerstone of the celebrations. So in the spirit of the festivities, we've rounded up 10 essential New Year dishes, and included the significance behind them all. All of these dishes can be found in Chinese restaurants, but we wouldn't advise making the trek to the San Gabriel Valley over the weekend — most of these places will be closed for the holiday.
10. Rice cake, nian gao
The tradition of eating rice cake goes back 3,000 years. The Chinese word for rice cake, or nian gao, correlates to the phrase "nian nian gao sheng," which means "increasing prosperity year after year." Eating rice cakes also celebrates the beginning of the rice harvest in the spring. These cakes come in both savory and sweet variations. Mama Lu's, a Shanghainese dumpling in Monterey Park has them in stir-fried form. 501 Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 307-5700.
9. Fish, yu
The saying that goes with the Chinese New Year fish dish is "nian nian you yu," which means "may the year bring prosperity." The character for prosperity, yu is a homophone for the word for fish, yu. Families buy a whole fish, which symbolizes unity, and it is typically steamed with ginger and a light soy sauce. It's also important to leave leftovers for the next day because this signifies that the prosperity will overflow. Whole fish is usually a norm in Chinese restaurants. Try the steamed rock cod at Five Star Seafood Restaurant. 140 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; 626-288-1899.
8. Sweet rice balls, tang yuan
These sweet rice balls are typically consumed during the 15th day of the celebration, known as the Yuanxiao Festival. The 15th day is also the first night a full moon is apparent during the lunar year. The dish is made differently depending on the geographic location. In the southern part of China, they're called tang yuan and the stuffing is put in last after the dough is made. In northern China, the rice dumplings are called yuanxiao. The filling is made first and rolled onto flour in a bamboo basket. The roundness of the rice balls signifies a complete circle of harmony and unity within the family. They are served in a soup and traditional fillings include sesame paste, red bean or peanuts. Wang Jia in San Gabriel serves a great version stuffed with sesame paste and topped with bits of Osmanthus flower. 156 S San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; 626-291-2233.
7. Turnip cake, luo buo gao
Turnip cakes, which originate in the Guangdong province, are a must-have for Cantonese people celebrating the New Year. It's also embraced in Taiwan because the Taiwanese pronunciation for turnip cake, cai tao gui is a homonym for fortune. It is associated with the phrase, "hao cai tao," which literally means good luck. The cakes can be served in two ways: steamed or fried. They can be found in any dim sum restaurant in Los Angeles. The versions at Lunasia in Alhambra are fried and massive. 500 W. Main St., Alhambra; 626-308-3222.
6. Dumplings, jiao zhi
Families traditionally spend New Year's Eve preparing the dumplings and will eat them at midnight. It's a custom that dates back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The dumpling is shaped like an ingot, which personifies wealth. The saying associated with dumpings, or jiao zhi, is "gen shui jiao zhi," or "ring out the old year and ring in the new." Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during New Year celebration, the more money you can make in the upcoming cycle. For the best dumplings in Los Angeles, Luscious is a must for handmade pot sticker aficionados. 704 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel; 626-282-8695.
5. Long noodles, mian tiao
Long noodles embody the concept of longevity. They are usually served uncut. In Taiwan, especially, miswa, thin salted wheat noodles, are widely used and can be served in stewed broth. Miswa signifies long life and the noodle is also a traditional birthday dish. The ever-so-popular Class 302 serves up a classic miswa dish with pig intestines. 1015 S Nogales St, Rowland Heights; 626-965-5809.
4. Mustard greens, changnian cai
Mustard greens are a standard vegetable dish for the celebration. They are commonly known as jie cai ??, but in the context of the new year, they are labeled as chang nian cai which translates to perennial vegetables. They can't be overcooked and so they're an ideal symbol for a long life. You're expected to eat the entire vegetable and the homonym for this is chang chang jiu jiu, or longevity. While jie cai is common in most Chinese restaurant, Fine Garden Vegetarian Restaurant in San Gabriel serves them sauteed with tofu skin. 841 W Las Tunas Dr San Gabriel, CA 91776.
3. Fruit, shui guo
Mandarin oranges are a common fruit during the New Year. The word in Chinese for oranges, ju in the Teochew dialect, is a homophone for ji, the word for auspicious or lucky. Pomelos are another favorite. The Chinese word for pomelo, you zhi sounds like the word for "to have" in Chinese, which is you. Citrus fruits are in abundance in grocery stores during this time of the year. Try 99 Ranch. They also carry exotic selections like durian, dragon fruit and jackfruit. 140 W. Valley Blvd., San Gabriel; 626-307-8899.
2. Spring roll, chun juan
Spring roll is a Cantonese dim sum dish that's named after the Spring Festival. The words chun juan literally mean spring and roll. The golden color of the fried spring rolls represent gold bars — which, of course, symbolize wealth. Most seafood restaurants like Sea Harbour carry this dish during their dim sum hours. 3939 Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead; 626-288-3939.
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1. Chicken, ji
The chicken should be served whole with the head and the feet still attached. This connotes unity and a good marriage between families. A common cooking method: Marinate the chicken and then air-dry it for about three hours until the skin is like paper. Flash-fry it and then coat it with spices. The same method can be applied to ducks as well. Pre-roasted whole poultry can be found at Sam Woo BBQ. 514 W. Valley Blvd., Alhambra; 626-281-0038.