Chinese New Year an elaborate tangle of food and traditions
Strange food and superstitions abound for Chinese New Year
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Saturday, Feb 02, 2013 06:00 am
Year of the snake
The Chinese lunar calendar cycles between 12 animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig) and five elements (water, metal, earth, wood and fire), each of which carries significance.
2013 in particular will be the year of the water snake.
The snake is seen as a refined, artistic and many-coloured creature, traits reputedly shared by people born under its sign.
The Chinese closely associate water with money, so the year of the water snake should be a great financial year for some. But water is also associated with the colour black, which represents instability. 2013 is therefore a year to plan carefully, as your fortunes could change rapidly.
When I was growing up, Chinese New Year was all about two things: lucky money and weird food.
I never got what was going on. All I knew was that Grandma was giving me red packets of money (score!) and telling me to eat this gross fish or these greasy noodles or that icky dumpling.
“It’s lucky!” my parents assured me.
Me, I preferred Kraft Dinner.
Chinese families around the world are getting ready to usher in the Year of the Snake on Feb. 10. It’s a time of superstition, celebration and fun, where everyone eats way too much lucky food.
Miles Quon will be serving up some of that food during new year’s at his St. Albert restaurant, the Lingnan Express. Over at his other job at Edmonton’s Dynasty Century Palace, he’ll be decked out in traditional Chinese clothes as performers set off firecrackers and do a lion dance.
“Here, it’s always packed on Chinese New Year,” he said.
Quon, 31, says his family has always celebrated Chinese New Year and still observes its traditions today. This can get a bit exasperating, he notes, as there’s a whole list of things you can and can’t do in preparation for it.
His parents are always hassling him about it, he jokes.
“Did you get your hair cut yet?”
“No, I haven’t cut my hair yet, I’m a full-grown man!”
“Go cut your hair!”
Gordon Houlden, director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, says he observed many new year’s celebrations during his 22 years in China with the Canadian Foreign Service.
“Chinese New Year is the equivalent of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Labour Day all rolled into one,” he says, and is by far the most important holiday in China.
Normal life is basically suspended for 10 days as the whole country celebrates the start of a new lunar year, Houlden says. The weeks before New Year’s Day are usually very busy as a result.
First off, Quon says, you have to get your travel plans in order.
“Everybody wants to get the family back together,” he says, so you’ll usually see a mass exodus in China from the city to the country as everyone heads back home. Families will also be busy planning meals, visits and gifts of lucky money.
Then there are the superstitions. You have to sweep the house from top to bottom, Quon says, in order to make sure luck flows unimpeded through it during the new year. You don’t want to sweep during new year’s, however, as you’ll sweep your luck away.
You can’t buy shoes during new year’s, Quon continues, as the word shoe in Cantonese, hai, sounds like “rough,” which makes for a rough year. Haircuts are also out, as those snip your good luck away.
“Chinatown’s barbershops here, two weeks before new year’s? Packed full solid,” he says. “Nobody wants to start new year’s looking shabby.”
And don’t talk about zombies or Twilight, he adds, as any talk of death is super unlucky at this time of year.
Households will also hang up lots of red fabric and cards prior to new year’s, says Qian Tang, a researcher with the China Institute.
“In the old times, there was a beast called nian,” she explains (nian means year), which would attack villages during new year’s. The beast feared red and loud noises, so households would hang up red stuff and set off fireworks to scare the beast away. (The lion dance is closely linked to this legend.)
On New Year’s Eve, Quon says, everyone gets together to have a massive meal. You want lots of food, he explains, as this represents lots of wealth.
“Everybody happy and healthy, everybody full.”
Many of the foods served are symbolic. Expect to see many circular foods, Quon says, such as oranges, golden sesame seed balls and whole chickens, as they represent the cyclical nature of life.
Fried foods, especially fried dumplings, often show up, as the Cantonese word for “oily” sounds like the one for “rich” and fried dumplings resemble gold ingots.
“We eat a lot of lotus roots,” Quon notes, as they have lots of seeds, which represent fertility.
Some families serve ham hocks, Quon says, as they relate to a Cantonese saying that means, “You get luck from the side” (they’re from the side of the pig). You’ll often see fish as well, since the word for fish sounds like “bountiful harvest.”
Some dishes will feature fat choy – an expensive black fungus whose name sounds like “wealth” in Cantonese. It looks like a slimy hairball, and my parents tell me that it’s completely indigestible.
One dish you do not want on your dinner table is congee, a porridge that is basically watered-down rice, Quon says.
“You don’t want to eat anything that represents being poor,” he says, as you’ll be poor all year if you do. Eat candied ginger and carrots instead, as those will let you start the year with a sweet taste in your mouth.
The celebrations continue after New Year’s Eve, Quon says, with each day dedicated to a specific purpose. You don’t visit anyone on New Year’s Day, for example, and you eat another big meal on the seventh day, which is considered the common man’s birthday. Celebrations wrap up on the 15th day with the Lantern Festival, where families will light lanterns to guide wayward spirits home.
This is a great time to learn more about Chinese culture by visiting a Chinese restaurant or celebration, Holden says.
Non-Chinese Canadians can get into the spirit by wearing red and other bright colours to attract luck, Quon says, eating Chinese sweets and giving lucky money to relatives.
“Nothing beats lucky money,” he says.
It can sometimes be a pain to observe all these traditions, Quon says, but it’s part of what being Chinese is all about.
“That’s who we are: we’re Chinese.”
Lose your traditions, and you lose that culture and identity.
OK, I guess I can choke down some noodles if it makes Grandma happy. Now, where’s my lucky money?