Chinese New Year: A Feast of Symbols

Chinatown decorated for Chinese New Year
Chinatown decorated for Chinese New Year
Kim Nowacki

The eve of Chinese New Year is often favored for its capacity to cultivate dreams and generate good will. Dining tables whereupon many Chinese families gather this Sunday evening will witness a brief, but sharp increase in property value as hopes for the new lunar year manifest in a symbolic feast. Space is premium as nearly everything on the table is strategically arranged to maximize a positive forecast. Whereas tradition expects families to gather and prep at the home of a senior member, a contemporary trend finds families celebrating outside at a restaurant and purchasing edible gifts at markets or bakeries. In Chinatown and throughout San Gabriel Valley, standbys like I Fu Tang Bakery and Hong Kong Supermarket allow for ease in negotiating between old and new.

Dumplings for a new year feast
Dumplings for a new year feast
Danny Bradury

This ritualistic holiday dinner can be equal parts family reunion and one-sided conversation with the cosmos. Celebrants select dishes heavy with positive symbolism like a wish list for the oncoming year. To explore the meaning behind the dishes is to embark at times on a lesson in Chinese languages from Cantonese to Mandarin to Minnan. Many of the dishes are prized in part for a homophonous -- sometimes exact, sometimes reminiscent -- link to a word reflective of some form of auspiciousness. In Mandarin, the characters for surplus and fish, for instance, are one in pinyin and pronunciation. Conjuring the idiom for perennial abundance, fish is a cross-regional requisite at most new year's eve dinners.

Fried turnip cakes
Fried turnip cakes

Meanwhile, in Southern Chinese tradition, eat a slice of savory turnip cake and you're establishing a good omen for yourself. A Cantonese dish of black moss with oysters signals prosperity. The same goes for braised pig trotters; this dish can be found in Taiwanese feasts as well. Northerners, on the other hand, keep a platter of jiaozi or two for the dumpling's resemblance to gold ingots and generally wealth. In recent history, migrational and informational flows in every which direction have led to the commingling of regional cultures. A platter of savory turnip cakes set next to one of jiaozi is no longer an uncommon tableau.

With sampling various interpretations of the new year's feast, Angelenos are at a particular advantage given the diversity of Chinese food shops and restaurants in the city. I Fu Tang Bakery offers holiday staples like brown sugar steamed cakes, savory turnip cakes, and sweet sticky rice cakes. The latter is the standard used to represent a six-character couplet, which draws a connection between consuming sweets and having a good year. For those platters of dumplings-turn-ingots,Dean Sin World sells a bag of 50 leek and pork dumplings at $11 each.

Beyond take-home sweets and savories, restaurants across the dietary spectrum like Sea Harbor Seafood Restaurant and Happy Family have set up multi-course dinner specials designed to feed groups. Communal by design, hot pots embody the reunion spirit of the holiday. Lu Gi and Hot Pot Hot Pot cater to hot pot seekers regardless of the holiday though. They're among those not offering any special sets or deals on Sunday.

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