Due to many factors, a shortage of food has almost always been a real danger in Chinese history
. As recently as the late 1950's during the Great Leap Forward
, people in China
have suffered from famine
. Therefore, it is not surprising that food is very important to Chinese people: a standard way of greeting each other in Chinese is to ask if one has eaten yet
(Ni chi-le, mei you?
or Ni chi bao le ma?
). Many of the traditional Chinese holidays
and celebrations are associated with eating particular foods
and dishes. The foods were often chosen for their symbolism, or for their luxury status, or for their actual role in historical events, or simply because they just taste really good. Chinese people believe eating good food helps to promote harmony and closeness between family and friends. Without these foods, Chinese holidays and celebrations just would not be the same.
Foods to Avoid: Anything bitter or sour is avoid to prevent any bitter or souring experiences in the coming year. Anything in groups of four since the Chinese word for "four" sounds like "to die."
- Chinese New Year: (Chunjie, also known as "The Spring Festival") First day of the first lunar month. This 15-day long holiday is the most important in the Chinese calendar. And of the 15 days of celebration, the family dinner on New Year's Eve is the most important point. Usually people try to serve the best foods they can possibly afford during this time. There is also a strong emphasis on fried goods since oil was always quite scarce and expensive in Ancient China.
- Jiaozi: Also known as Chinese style dumplings, or "gyoza" in Japanese, or "mandoo" in Korean, or "Peking Ravioli." By including meat and requiring a good deal of time to make (back before one could buy prepackaged wrapping skins at the local Asian market), jiaozi was too impractical and luxurious for most people in Ancient China to have except for the New Year's Eve feast. Also the shape of jiaozi resembles a type of gold ingot. Jiaozi is more common in Northern China. It is more standard to boil jiaozi, but if you pan-fry them, they become potstickers (guotie jiaozi). And jiaozi is not the same as wonton.
- Chinese Fried Meatballs: (Rou wan) Usually made from ground pork, they are seasoned differently than Italian meatballs by including a lot of minced ginger, Shaoxing wine, and soy sauce. They symbolize reunion and togetherness of family members. Fried fish balls is a variation of this concept.
- Whole Fish: The word for fish (yu) sounds like the word for "abundance" or "surplus." Serving fish helps to ensure that one will not lack anything in the coming year. It is also important that the fish remain whole to symbolize "togetherness."
- Whole Chicken: Again, by being whole, the chicken symbolizes "togetherness." Also in some dialects, the word for "chicken" sounds like the word for "fortunate."
- Spring Rolls:(Chunzhuan) Also referred to as "egg rolls." Fillings may vary, but spring rolls are always fried. The color and shape make them resemble a type of gold bullion.
- Abalone: (Baoyu) In addition to being expensive, the Chinese word for abalone sounds like the phrase "assurance of surplus."
- Oysters: (Haosi) In Chinese, the name is a homonym for the phrase "good things."
- Chinese New Year Cakes: There are two main types of cakes. Nian gao is a sticky, chewy steamed cake made from rice flour. This cake is not leavened. It is quite a bit like mochi but is usually more stiff and dense. Sometimes it's referred to as a pudding. "Nian gao" also sounds like the phrase for "high year" in Chinese. Niangao is more common in Southern China and Taiwan. There is also fa gao which is made with wheat flour and very fluffy. The name sounds like the phrase "to prosper."
- Pomelo: (Youzi) A large citrus fruit related to the grapefruit but much sweeter and more fragrant. The Chinese name for the fruit is a homonym for the word "to have."
- "Lucky" chocolate: which is chocolate molded into "lucky" shapes and covered with gold foil. Common shapes include fish, pineapples, hulu gourd (a gourd traditionally used to hold wine in ancient times), peaches, gold coins, and gold ingots.
- Candied hawthorn fruit: are a bright and glossy red, the size of a very large marble, and served skewered three or five on a small wooden stick. The fruit is only seasonally available during January and February. When candied, it is called bing tang hulu and are a very traditional, ancient candy treat.
- Various Seeds and Candied Fruits and Melons: Since it's traditional to visit friends and relatives during Chinese New Year, Chinese families will make or purchase a prepared tray of nuts and candied fruits. This tray is offered to all guests to snack on while visiting and is called the "tray of togetherness" or the "eight treasure tray." The tray is most often in a circular or octogonal shape and usually contains 8 items although there are more than 8 possible items to choose from--it just depends on the family's preference. Each item has a specific meaning:
- Candied melon symbolize good health.
- Lotus seeds represent fertility and having many children.
- Candied lotus roots signify family unity and harmony.
- Lychee nuts symbolize strong family relationships.
- Candied water chestnut
- Candied kumquat represents prosperity since the Chinese name for kumquat (jingua) is literally "gold melon."
- Dried red dates (actually a jujube) signify an early realization of goals.
- Dried persimmons
- Coconut symbolizes togetherness. Also sounds like the phrase "more sons."
- Peanuts represent longevity. They don't have to be real peanuts--gold foil covered chocolates in the shape of peanuts are mighty popular.
- Longan symbolizes having many good sons.
- Melon seeds that are dyed red to symbolize joy. Also signifies many descendents since a melon has lots of seeds. The trendy new style is to "flavor" melon seeds with green tea, rose, lavender, etc.
- Pistachios are called kaixinguo which sounds like "happy fruit" or "light-hearted fruit."
Lantern Festival: (Yuanxiaojie) 15th day of the first lunar month, to conclude the New Year's celebration. It is traditional to eat chewy little round dumplings (tang yuan or yuan xiao) made from rice flour and boiled in water. The dumplings may be plain or have sweet or savory fillings. Plain tang yuan can also be fried and dipped in syrup. The dumplings symbolize peace and unity. In our home we've always called them "tang yuan," but I've heard that the other name, "yuan xiao," is derived from the name of a royal hand-maid in the Han Dynasty.
Clear Brightness Festival: (Qingmingjie or "Tomb Sweeping Day") April 5th, or April 4th on leap years. Traditionally, people will clean the graves of their ancestors and leave some bits plain food at the site. But at the altar tables within the home, people will usually place whatever foods that were favorites of the deceased ancestors. This is a somewhat minor holiday and not celebrated very much among modern Chinese people.
Dragon Boat Festival: (Duanwujie) 5th day of the 5th lunar month. Eating zongzi (rice dumplings or "Chinese tamales") is of central importance on this holiday because of the actual role it played in history.
Mid-Autumn Festival: (Zhongqiujie or "Moon Festival") 15th day of the 8th lunar month. The moon cake (yue bing) is eaten during this holiday and is another food that had a role in history.
Winter Solstice: (Dongzi) Curiously enough tangyuan is also eaten during this time, 6 weeks before Chinese New Year, to promote family unity and prosperity. During this time some places in Northern China have wontons (hun dun) instead.
- Weddings: The Chinese wedding banquet is truly a big deal. Getting married without hosting a giant, lavish banquet just is not done. It just isn't. It is a completely necessary part of a Chinese wedding. Luckily, Chinese custom also holds that each guest is suppose to give money in red envelopes to whoever is paying for the banquet (usually the parents).
- Whole Roast Suckling Pig: A whole pig represents the bride's virginity. And......I'll stay away from a lengthy discussion about the implications of that.
- Chinese Wedding Cakes: The traditional Chinese wedding cakes are small, individual-sized cakes quite similar to moon cakes. They have become a rarer sight now, since the trend among Chinese people is to have a regular Western-style, multi-tiered, buttercream frosted wedding cake instead.
- Dragon and Phoenix: The dragon and phoenix represents the ying (the female phoenix) and yang (the male dragon) that come together in a marriage. Showing this combination in a banquet can be done various ways. Usually a chicken dish represents the phoenix. Lobster or sometimes eel can represent the dragon. Also a "cold platter" of jellyfish and various meats arranged in dragon and phoenix shapes may also be served.
- Duck: Ducks represent fidelity. The famous Chinese roast duck (kaoya) is a common sight at wedding banquets.
- Whole Fish: For the same reason it is served at Chinese New Year.
- Shark Fin Soup: Definitely a luxury item. There has been more concern in recent years about how the fins are harvested, but this soup is still widely consumed in Chinese circles during wedding banquets.
- Hard Liquor: Needs no explanation, really. Cognac seems the norm.
Birthdays: By eating long noodles (usually in a soup), one is supposedly ensured of having a long life. Chinese children in America, however, usually expect a birthday cake.
New Baby: When a new baby is born, the family will host a feast. They can serve most any dish they want, but there are two that are almost always served on this particular occasion:
- Seaweed Soup: This soup uses a particular type of seaweed (fa cai) called "black moss" in English. This type of seaweed looks like strands of black hair. The soup is supposedly very nourishing for the new mother and the guests. And "fa cai" is also a Chinese homonym for "prosperity."
- Red-dyed Eggs: Chinese people consider red an auspicious color. But red also represents the blood and pain of child-birth. An even number of eggs is handed out if the child is a boy; an odd number if the child is a girl.