Happy Year of the Rooster! This year, the Lunar New Year falls on Jan. 28. 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. Traditionally meant to commemorate new beginnings and the start of the new harvest season, the holiday is a time when families around the globe reunite for an epic feast. While the holiday is commonly associated with China, most East and Southeast Asian countries have their own versions. Food, of course, is at the cornerstone of the celebrations. Here’s a breakdown of New Year food staples from four Asian cultures.
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, which are consumed mostly by Northerners, are handmade days beforehand. Because the dumpling is shaped like an ingot, it is said that the more dumplings you eat, the more wealth you will receive. Eating shrimp also is 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 usually is 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 the 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. Desserts include deep-fried honey cookies and rice puffs, called gangjeong, glazed with honey and oil, typically offered to ancestors at memorial ceremonies. They are supposed to increase health and vitality for the entire year.
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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.
Though the Japanese New Year used to be celebrated in accordance to the Lunar New Year calendar, it was changed to Jan. 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 the Heian Period, and the feast includes fish cakes, herring roe (which symbolizes increased children), black soybeans (which represent health) and seafood (which stands for joy).