A feasting day with food drenched in more symbolism than sauce, and traditions as rich as the fortunes we hope for, the Lunar New Year is the most important holiday of the year for Chinese folks around the world.

By Su-Jit Lin
February 08, 2021
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Credit: Getty Images

The dreaded Golden Eggs: They sit in a cloudy broth, glittering with the fat melted off meaty pork shoulder bones that have simmered for hours, verdant scallions punching color into the pleasant taupe of the soup. The eggs bob innocently among meatballs made of white finfish, whose centers surprise with treasures of flavorful ground pork, and smaller, denser ones with a springier bounce and sharper flavor. Boiled, peeled, then deep fried before being dropped into soup, these eggs take time and care to prepare.

A specialty from the region of my ancestry, Fuzhou, at any other time, they'd be—at worst—innocuous. But on this, the ultimate of feast days, the Reunion Dinner that takes place on the eve of the Lunar New Year...on this night, the Golden Eggs are thieves of joy.

Eating a whole egg in any kind of preparation is an important part of welcoming the new year and celebrating the Spring Festival—the rounding of the cruel curve of winter in Chinese culture. Like everything else around this cultural holiday, it's dripping with more symbolism than sauce.

The spherical shape of the egg—and any other round food, for that matter—signifies a wholeness, particularly for the family unit, and fertility. It also equally stands for prosperity: the whites for silver, the yolks for gold. The illusory gilded layer added by the frying stage of these particular eggs is an attempt at extra credit by my family of overachievers.

In the soup tureen, there's one for each of us at the table, and a few extra to manufacture a good omen for the year ahead. Leftovers are intentional; the more food on the table to start and at the finish, the stronger the message of a wish for overabundance in the year to come.

Deep mystical metaphors aside, though, my siblings and I resented these eggs.

They're bland, we complained, and boring—a total waste of time and precious stomach space on an evening meant to be a marathon, not a sprint. With upwards of 10 dishes and as many as 17 for our family of six to sample in a tableau sprawled across multiple tables shoved unceremoniously together, it felt like an affront to the bounty our father would present. A chef and restaurateur, he took this holiday—the most important one of the year for Chinese folks around the world—as a challenge to outdo himself: to take requests, rediscover forgotten flavors, dust off old recipes, and experiment with new ones, playing with unfamiliar regions of his homeland. He'd become a one-man whirlwind, taking very seriously the superstition that the greater the variety of dishes, the better our fortunes would be; the more food, the greater the plenty in the coming year.

So as special to our heritage as it was, what use did we have for eating what is still essentially a hard-boiled egg when duck would be glistening under crisp, russet skin just to the side of it, waiting to be wrapped in pillowy mantou buns? When tender pea shoots, hiding whole cloves of garlic like clownfish in anemone, provided a bright emerald contrast to the nondescript beige bowl of soup and spheres?

We kids would grab an egg as soon as we sat down to get it over with quickly. Scarf it down practically whole in eagerness to get to the good stuff, the lobster tossed with ginger and scallion in traditional Cantonese preparation, the black snails we'd carefully pull from their shells with toothpicks, all squishy and delicately curly at the ends. We were eager to get the prime pieces of tangy Peking pork chops while they were still crispy under their mahogany glaze and the best parts of the whole sea bass that gaped slack-jawed and glassy-eyed at us under a blanket of haystack ginger and scallions, swimming no more but in a pool of soy sauce and hot sizzling oil no less.

An amalgam of dishes from regions across China—all home to cuisines with wholly distinctive flavor profiles—and even some Americanized Chinese favorites, these were some of the special requests we'd make of our father. As we celebrated a world away from his homeland, we followed only the loosest of guidelines on how to celebrate the Spring Festival. After all, we couldn't shut down for a week and travel to visit with family and friends for another full week after. We weren't able to shoot off fireworks for days after, all the way through the Lantern Festival, which marked the end of the holiday season. And without time nor a big local Chinese population, we couldn't watch lion and dragon dances and scare away the evil spirits with gongs, cymbals, and firecrackers.

What we could do was clean the house in the week before, do some shopping for a new outfit, and put up red banners with gold-foil couplets and characters that stood for fortune. We could light incense at our family altars, gleefully accept red envelopes of lucky money (until we reached a certain age), and watch the annual CCTV variety show gala into the wee hours.

We could also hold to small new year superstitions, like skipping the morning porridge to avoid poverty, refraining from putting negative words out into the atmosphere, and staying away from financial matters. And we could happily refrain from sweeping the floors, putting out the trash, and washing our clothes or hair on New Year's Day for fear of washing away good luck.

That aside, we here in the States, like any other group of immigrants, made it our own, doing the best we could with what we had.

Adapting Tradition to America

We ate our feast in the storefront of our suburban Chinese takeout on Long Island, N.Y., as soon as the dinner rush showed signs of dying down. We were open all day, but would officially close early, at about 10 p.m. Until then, my parents would still jump up from their seats to service customers as walk-ins would gape over the exotic alien bounty, like cuttlefish and sliced abalone or alabaster Hainan chicken, chopped up with pink marrow peeking out from the bones.

These dishes were all part of the "da yu, da rou" guidelines for the new year's eve feast, a phrase that literally translates to "big fish, big meat." Everyday Chinese food is typically vegetable-heavy, a handful of different entrees shared family-style and taken bite by bite from community plate to mouth to accompany your individual bowl of rice. But on this evening, one that was supposed to establish the precedent for the year to come, all the stops were pulled.

The "da rou" would consist of duck for loyalty (and because we loved it) and future fertility; a whole chicken for prosperity, family unity, and togetherness; pork for strength, wealth, and peace. Lamb and beef, if you had it, are great, too, if not as common; the latter is a symbol of greatness and power.

"Da yu" is the real protein showpiece, though—an entire fish, cooked and served gutted but whole, with the head pointed toward the guest of greatest honor. The phrase "to have both a head and tail" is associated with this tradition; it means to see things through to the end with discipline—a resolution if I've heard of any!

And the more big fish, the better. Fish stands for abundance and plenty due to the word's homophonic nature: The word "yu" sounds similar to that used for "surplus," and leftovers are a good sign that you'll enjoy plenty of it in the days to come. Shrimp, crab, lobster, clams, mussels, scallops, and all manner of shellfish add even more variety to the table and come imbued with their own meanings, too.

Other must-haves for the Reunion Dinner table include nian gao. Its translation can be interpreted as "higher/taller year," which symbolizes growth in every aspect—increased fortune, knowledge, income, health, and for children noshing on this sweet rice cake with red dates or jujubes—another symbol of wealth and fertility—literal growth. Young ones would also enjoy round citrus fruit like tangerines, mandarins, oranges, and pomelos as part of their dessert, their spherical shapes mirroring the same wishes as the aforementioned eggs, and their deep hues representing gold and wealth.

But in between the entree and dessert, the meal's traditions are open to interpretation. It's up to the chef to foretell your fortune, making it fun for people of any descent to celebrate the lunar new year along with the 20 percent of the world's population that celebrates annually. After all, who can't use a restart button every once in a while?

Making Chinese New Year Your Own

In the north, dumplings are a famous Reunion Dinner tradition easy for any American to adopt. Chinese families will often make this a group activity, spending hours wrapping them together while spilling a year's worth of figurative tea as they sip on the actual stuff. Every family has its own recipes, too, so there's no right or wrong way to have this treat. But whether you make them yourself or not, eating dumplings at this dinner is a good way to try to stack the odds of financial success in your future—their crescent shapes resemble the gold ingots used in ancient Chinese trade.

Other food traditions common to the Spring Festival are bowls filled with seemingly endless, springy noodles, which symbolize a long, smooth, unbroken life. You'll find them on every Reunion Dinner table in some form since not everyone is a fan of longevity noodles, which are distinctive for their sodium bicarbonate treatment. Lo mein, glass, egg, or any other type of bundled noodle is a more accessible substitute, since you want strands that won't sever easily, like vermicelli rice noodles. Load it up with mushrooms of any and all kinds, saute with garlic chives, or accent with peanuts to multiply your wishes for plentiful days ahead. And go ahead and slurp—it's a compliment and good omen if you can make it to the end of the strands!

But if plenty is what you're looking for, there's a long, long list of ingredients you should consider when planning your menu. It makes sense that abundance is a priority in a country whose majority has historically not had that. Extreme poverty has been impressively eradicated in China, but those roots run deep. To protect against want, look for recipes with bamboo shoots, tofu, cabbage, grapes, jujubes and kumquats, corn, and lotus—anything that comes naturally in multitudes typically represent surplus, an important theme for the agrarian Spring Festival holiday.

You also want to choose foods that are tidily, satisfyingly wrapped, like spring rolls, cabbage and lettuce rolls, rice bundles, and other cute packets. The thought process around dumplings and their resemblance to gold, as well as bundling up goodness for the new year, also holds true here.

Culturally, family is also a tremendous guidepost for the Chinese. Much of the meal should be dedicated to symbols of harmony, unity, and togetherness. Fertility also comes as part and parcel of that train of thought. Mixed vegetables, cooked together in a symphony of flavors, is present at every Lunar New Year dinner in multiple combinations—what better way to show the principle that a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts?

From there, just add all the round things you can think of: meatballs, including the famous Shanghainese lion's head type and those made of fish and stuffed with pork; tang yuan glutinous rice balls; citrus fruit; melons and mushrooms...and of course, that darn hard-boiled egg.