Lunar New Year Food Staples From China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam

Chinese feast from GuilinEXPAND
Chinese feast from Guilin
Clarissa Wei

The tradition of the Lunar New Year originates in China. It's a two week-long celebration beginning with the first new moon of the lunar calendar and ending 15 days later on the first full moon. This year, that dates falls on February 19. It commemorates the beginning of spring, a time when families around the globe are reuniting for an epic feast. 

While the Lunar New Year festivities are most commonly associated with China, most East Asian and Southeast countries also have their own versions. Food, of course, is at the cornerstone of these. Here’s a breakdown of New Year food staples from four Asian cultures:

Clarissa Wei

The Chinese New Year banquet spread is steeped with meaning. Most dishes are homonyms for a particular wish for the upcoming year, and while dishes range depending on region there are some commonalities. Whole animals, for example, are encouraged. A whole animal – usually fish, poultry, or suckling pig – is symbolic of familial unity. Dumplings, especially in the north, are handmade days beforehand and consumed throughout the festivities. Because the dumpling is shaped like an ingot – an old form of Chinese currency – it is said that the more dumplings that you eat, the more wealth you will receive. Eating shrimp is also encouraged because the Cantonese pronunciation of the crustacean, ha, sounds like laughter. 

The Korean Lunar New Year is called Seollal and a variety of special festival food called sechan is usually offered to ancestors at memorial ceremonies and served to family members and guests on New Year’s day. The hallmark of this spread is the tteokguk, or sliced rice cakes cooked in soup. The tteokguk is derived from long cylindrical rice cakes called garaetteok, which is usually offered to gods and shared among the family because it symbolizes longevity and the positive energy of yang. Mandutguk, or dumpling soup, is another popular savory dish. Sweet desserts include deep-fried honey cookies and rice puffs, called gangjeong, glazed with honey and oil, which is typically offered to ancestors at memorial ceremonies. It’s supposed to increase health and vitality for the entire year.

Bánh chung
Bánh chung
Flickr/Ben Nguyen

The Vietnamese New Year is called Tet and the holiday's most iconic dish is bánh chung, sticky rice stuffed with meat or beans. It’s packed tightly with Dong leaves and wrapped into a square. Other dishes include dried candied fruit and a bright red sticky rice called xoi gac, which gets its color from baby jackfruit. 

Flickr/Vincent Van den Storme

Though the Japanese New Year used to be celebrated in accordance to the Lunar New Year calendar, it was changed to January 1 in 1873. The festivity is called oshogatsu, and on New Year’s Eve the celebrations kick off with a meal of buckwheat noodles, symbolic of longevity. The signature of the new year feast is a bento collection called osechi-ryori, which consists of dozens of small dishes stuffed in bento boxes and stacked up on top of each other. It’s a tradition that dates back to Heian Period, and the feast includes fish cakes, herring roe (which symbolize increased children), black soybeans (which represent health), and seafood (which stands for joy). 

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