Food Symbolism during Chinese New Year Celebrations


Food Symbolism during Chinese New Year Celebrations

Chinese like playing with words and symbols. Often homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings) are used. Names of dishes and/or their ingrediets which will be served sound similar to words and phrases refering to wishes expressed during the Chinese New Year, while other foods hold a symbolic meaning. 

 Food offerings are a prayer or a wish and can be addressed to ancestors and other beings such as the Jade Emperor and The Kitchen God. The offering of food serves to bring ancestors and other beings in the other world closer to oneself.
The food offerings serve as a bonding tool to bring both worlds together.

Below a brief list of the food’s symbolic meaning:

Abalone (sea snail; 鳆; fù) – definite good fortune
Apple (苹果; píngguǒ) – wisdom, peace
Apricot, dried (杏脯; xìngfǔ) – gold, wealth
Arrowhead (bot.: Sagittaria sagittifolia; 慈菇; cí gū) – benevolence
Arrowroot (bot.: Maranta arundinacea; 竹芋) – good life

Bamboo fungus (stinkhorn fungus; bot.: Phallus indusiatus; 竹笙, zhúshēng), also called bamboo pith (竹荪; zhúsūn) – meaning: long life
Bamboo shoots (竹笋尖; zhú sǔn jiān) – wealth (term sounds like “wishing that everything would be well” – xǔyuànchí), new start
Banana (香蕉; xiāngjiāo), on altar, offering – wish for education, brilliance at work/ school
Bean curd, dried/ tofu, dried (豆腐, dòu fǔ)- fulfillment of wealth and happiness (note: dried tofu is not of white colour)
Bean curd sticks (腐竹; fǔ zhú) – blessing the house
Bean sprouts (豆芽; dòu yá, literally “bean sprout/germ” 芽菜; yá cài, literally “sprout vegetable” or 银芽; yín yá, literally “silver sprouts”) – ‘to your heart’s content’, positive start into the new year
Black moss (hair moss, hair weed), fat choy (髮菜; fàcài; a black hair-like cyanobacteria) – wealth

Cabbage, Chinese (pak choy, 白菜) – 100 types of prosperity luck
Cabbage, stuffed packages – wealth (the shape symbolises an ingot)
Calms (scallops; 扇贝; shànbèi) – opening of new horizons
calm roll (干贝; gānbèi) – gold, wealth
Carrots (胡蘿蔔; hú luóbo; or 紅蘿蔔; hóng luóbo), red colour- good luck
Cashew nut (腰果, yāoguǒ)- gold, money (the nut’s shape symbolises the gold bar of ancient times)
Chicken (whole) (鸡肉; jīròu) – prosperity, togetherness of the family, joy (note: chicken with its head, tail and feet symbolizes completeness)
Chinese garlic chives (韭菜, jiǔcài) – everlasting, eternity, long life
Coconut, nut (椰子; yēzi), flesh (椰肉; yēròu), juice/milk (椰汁; yēzhī) – promoting togetherness

Daylily buds, golden lily buds (金针; jīnzhēn; also called “golden needles”) – wealth
Duck (鸭肉, yāròu) – fertility
Dumplings – dumplings exist in various kind, see: jiaozi dumplings, yuanxiao/ tangyuan/ tangtuan dumplings

Egg (蛋, dàn) – fertility
egg roll (蛋皮春卷, dàn pí chūn juǎn) – money, wealth, gold

Fa Gao (发糕; fāgāo) the steamed “Prosperity Cake”; the sound “fa” means either “to raise/generate” or “be prosperous”
Fish (whole) – The word 魚 (yú), meaning “fish”, has the same pronunciation as the word 餘, which is “remain or surplus”, ‘having leftovers of money’, an increase in prosperity
fish ball (鱼蛋; yúdàn) – reunion

Golden lilly buds, Daylily (bot.: Hemerocallis; 金针; jīnzhēn) – wealth
Gingko nuts ( 銀杏; yín xìng; or 白果, bái guǒ)- hope for silver, wealth (the nut’s shape represents a silver yuanbao/ ingot)

Dried unbroken glass noodles symbolise long life.
Photo: © Valeska Gehrmann 

Glass noodles, Chinese vermicelli, cellophane noodle, noodle threads (粉絲; fěn sī; also called “bean threads “, mung bean thread) – silver chain
Grapes (葡萄, pútaó) – wealth, abundance, fertility, many descendants, family harmony

Jiaozi- Dumplings (jiǎozi, 饺子) – wealth (the shape of the jiaozi dumplings is that of a yuanbao ingot, also the word jiǎozi shares the same pronunciation with 角子 (jiǎozi) that is a small jiao coin used in old times. Other meanings: togetherness, heavenly blessing

Jujube symbolise wealth, prosperity, as well as fertility
Photo: ©

Jujube (kind of date, red colour; 枣; zǎo, candied jujube: 蜜枣; mìzǎo) – wealth, prosperity, fertility
Kumquat (金橘; jīn jú) – gold, hence fortune, wealth

Lettuce (生菜; shēngcài) – prosperity
lettuce roll, food being rolled into lettuce – having a child soon
Longan (龙眼) – many good son
Lotus seeds/ -nuts/ -beans (蓮子; lián zĭ) – a full wallet, many (male) offspring
lotus seeds,crystallized (蓮子糖; lián zĭ táng) – a full wallet, many (male) offspring
Lychee (荔枝; lìzhī) – close family ties

Maize (玉米; yùmǐ) – growth
Mandarin (瓯柑; ōugān) – gold, wealth
Meat ball (肉丸; ròuwán)- reunion
Melon (瓜; guā) – family unity
melon, candied – growth, good health
Mixed vegetable (什锦蔬菜; shíjǐn shūcài) – family harmony
Muer mushroom, Black fungus, Three ear fungus, Wood ear (木耳; mù ěr) – longevity

Noodles (面条; miàntiáo) uncut – long life

Onion (洋葱; yángcōng) – cleverness
Orange (柑橘; gānjú) – wealth, good fortune, gold
Oyster (牡蠣; mǔlì) – receptivity to good fortune, good business
Oyster, dried (ho xi) – all good things, good luck

Peach – immortality
Peach, pair of (桃; táo) – wealth, abundance, long healthy life, great fortune for many generations
Peanuts (花生; huāshēng) – health, long life, birth of prosperity, continuous growth, multiplication in wealth and good fortune, stability
Pineapple (凤梨; fènglí) – wealth, luck, excellent fortune, gambling luck

Pomegranate symbolises many offsprings
Photo: © Valeska Gehrmann

Pomegranate (石榴; shíliu) – many offsprings
Pomelo (柚子; yòuzi) – abundance, prosperity, having children, good health, family unity
Pork (猪肉; zhūròu) – strength, wealth, abundant blessing
Prawn (大虾; dàxiā) – liveliness
Pumpkin (南瓜; nánguā) – prosperity, abundance, descendant’s luck, illustrious children, enchantment, fruit draws earth energy to manifest gold

Rice (米饭; mǐfàn) – fertility, luck, wealth, rice symbolizes a link between Heaven (Gods) and Earth (Men)
Nian gao, (Chinese: 年糕; pinyin: nián’gāo) Sticky (Rice) cake, Chinese new year’s cake. It is considered good luck to eat nian gao because it has the symbolism of increasing prosperity every year. The New Year greeting ‘Nian Nian Gao Sheng’ (年年高升 niánnián gāoshēng) is to wish people “advance toward higher positions and prosperity step by step.”
Sticky rice – cohering of family
Rice is one of the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty
Roseapple (Syzygium jambos; 蒲桃; pú táo) – calmness, peace of mind, no fighting

Seaweed, especially black moss, Fat Choy, (in Chinese: 髮菜; pinyin: fàcài; literal meaning: hair vegetable). The two syllables of Fat Choy in Cantonese sound the same as a Cantonese Chinese New Year greeting “Gung1 hei2 faat3 choi4” (恭喜发财) meaning “congratulations and be prosperous”; additional meanings: – good luck, exceeding wealth.
Seeds – lotus seeds, watermelon seeds, etc. – having a large number of children 籽 [zǐ]

Shiitake mushrooms
Shitake mushrooms, since long a symbol of longevity in Asia, they also symbolise sizing opportunities
Photo: ©

Shitake, Black mushroom (冬菇; dōnggū) – longevity, sizing opportunities
Shrimp (小虾; xiǎoxiā) – happiness and good fortune
Slender Noodle (細粉; xì fě) – see glass noodle
Snowpeas (荷蘭豆; hélándòu) – unity
Spring roll (春卷; chūnjuǎn) – wealth (the shape represents a gold bar)
Sweet corn (甜玉米; tián yùmǐ) – growth, increase
Sweets, (糖食; tángshí, 糖果;tángguǒ) rice cake (年糕; nián’gāo) – safety, good fortune and ‘sweeten’ the new year

Tangerine (橘; jú) – luck
Tangtuan (湯團, tāngtuán,”round dumplings in soup”), sweet dumplings – togetherness, reunion
Tangyuan ( 湯圓 ,tāngyuán, “round balls in soup”), sweet dumplings – togetherness, reunion
Tofu, dried (豆腐干; dòufǔgān) – fulfillment of wealth and happiness, blessing the houses (note: dried tofu is not of white colour)
Tofu, fried (炸豆腐; zhá dòufǔ) – gold, hence wealth
Turnip cake (萝卜糕; luóbo gāo) – good omen

Vegetable, green (绿叶菜; lǜyècài) – close family ties
vegetable/ tofu (dried) – harmony, happiness and prosperity

Walnut (核桃仁; hétàorén) – happiness of the entire family
Water chestnut (荸薺; bíqí) – unity
Winter noodel (冬粉, dōng fěn) – see glass noodle
Yuanxiao, sweet dumpling (元宵; yuánxiāo) – togetherness, reunion

Presenting a ‘whole’ chicken with its head, tail and feet symbolizes completeness.
Fresh bean curd / tofu is not included as it is white and unlucky for New Year as the colour signifies death and misfortune.
Fresh fruits symbolise life and new beginnings.
Sugared fruits are supposed to sweeten one’s upcoming year.
Sweets and fruits are served on a round tray, the form resembling togetherness, hence the tray is called the ‘Tray of Togetherness’. Sweets offered on the tray add up to the number 8, because eight is a lucky number and symbolises fortune.
A coin might be hidden in one dumpling, and the person who will find it is supposed to be showered with good fortune and wealth.