Chinese New Year is hands down the most important festival in China. Marking the beginning of Chinese Zodiac New Year, over two weeks the people all over the world will flock together to usher in the Year of the Rooster with lion and dragon dances, parades and firecrackers.
No Chinese New Year is complete however without feasting on the many ‘lucky’ Chinese New Year foods, that are said to bring good luck and fortune in the coming year.
Having done my research, and hoping to garner as much luck as possible for the year ahead, I went in search of 8 of these symbolic Chinese New Year foods in Asia Market on Drury Street. Read on to see what I discovered in this mecca for Asian ingredients in Dublin’s city centre.
You might know them from Chinese restaurant menus as pot stickers or dumplings, but jiaozi is the term given to the many types of dumplings which are a staple of Lunar New Year meals. One of the most famous Chinese New Year foods, Traditionally families spend New Year’s Eve preparing the dumplings and will eat them at midnight.
Dumplings are shaped like Ming Dynasty-era coins, so they have come to represent money and prosperity. The more pleats in your dumplings the more prosperity is said to come. Dumplings should be arranged in lines because a circular arrangement denotes that your life is going around in circles and not moving forward.
I found a freezer full of dumplings at Asia Market. The most popular Chinese varieties are filled with pork and flavoured with chinese leaf, chive or coriander. Stock up when you visit as legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during the New Year celebrations, the more money you can make in the year ahead! You can also find traditional dipping sauces labelled ‘Dumpling Sauces’, or try chinkiang, or black vinegar.
Spring rolls (chun juan) get their name because they are traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival – the words chun juan literally mean spring and roll. A Cantonese dim sum dish, thin dough wrappers are filled with filled with vegetables, meat, or something sweet. Once fried, the golden colour of rolls is said to represent gold bars — which, of course, symbolises wealth.
Make it easy for yourself and pick frozen spring rolls at Asia Market, or just around the corner at Duck, the Hong Kong style BBQ restaurant on Fade Street, I found piping-hot spring rolls fresh for sale – or you can by the wrappers in the freezer aisle and fill them with your choice of fillings.
Not in any way related to the cardboard-like rice cakes we are most familiar with, made with glutinous rice flour the Chinese version is more akin to a pudding. In Chinese the word for rice cake, or nian gao, relates to the phrase “nian nian gao sheng“, which means “increasing prosperity year after year.” The Chinese take this to mean that indulging on nian gao they will to increase their prosperity – which can imply growth in every aspect of life from children’s height, rise in business success, better grades in study, or promotions at work.
These rice cakes are made from sticky rice, sugar, chestnuts, Chinese dates, and lotus leaves, and you can find them in the fridges at Asia Market – just don’t eat too many, as you might grow in a less desirable direction.
Chief among the essential Chinese New Year foods is whole fish, and no feast would be complete without one. If you are squeamish then look away as keeping the head and tail intact is particularly significant as a whole fish symbolizes unity.
The word for fish (yu) also sounds like the word for abundance or surplus, and it is important to leave leftovers for the next day because this signifies that the prosperity will overflow in the coming year. In fact the most popular Chinese New Year fish dish is nian nian you yu, which means “may the year bring prosperity.”
You can buy several varieties of whole fish at Asia Market, found in cooler boxes of ice. To prepare fish in the traditional way, steam it with ginger and a light soy sauce. Be aware there are a number of customs relating to the position of the fish on the table, such as placing the head toward distinguished guests or elders as a mark of respect.
Unsurprisingly, long noodles embody the concept of longevity. Tradition states that you should never cut a noodle because the strands symbolise long life. Twirl and slurp uncut noodles up with chopsticks to prevent breakage.
At Asia Market there is a whole aisle dedicated to noodles. The ones to buy for New Year are longer than normal noodles and uncut – the SauTao brand are the most popular. You can serve them either fried and served on a plate, or boiled and served in a bowl with their broth.
Tangerines and oranges are commonly displayed during Chinese New Year or handed out like candy on Halloween because they symbolise wealth and luck. The tradition comes from the fact that tangerines in Chinese sounds similar to the word “luck” and orange sounds like the Chinese word for “wealth”. The bright orange color of the fruits also symbolises ‘gold’.
Kumquats, tangy citrus fruits that look like miniature oranges, too are said to bring prosperity as the word breaks down to ‘kam‘, which means gold, and ‘kat‘, meaning lucky and fortunate.
Another round and golden fruit which denotes fullness and wealth is the pomelo, which is thought to bring continuous prosperity – ‘The more you eat, the more wealth it will bring’, as the traditional saying goes.
When I visited Asia Market, the fresh fruit display was overflowing. Opt for fruit with leaves, which signals longevity, and avoid groups of fours, because that number symbolizes death. You can also pick up crates of tangerines to snack on or give as gifts throughout the holidays.
Along with fresh fruits, dried, sweetened fruits like winter melon, coconut, water chestnut, and lotus root and seeds are popular Chinese New Year foods to snack on – as these are said to bring you wealth in the coming year you may just want to sub them in for your usual pack of Haribo!
Like with fish, for Chinese New Year the chicken should be served whole with the head and the feet still attached, as this represents good things in the coming year, including family unity and a good marriage between families. Chicken also represents prosperity and rebirth.
You can find whole chickens for sale at the Asia Market, both fresh or frozen. Once you have your bird, marinate it and then air-dry it for about three hours until the skin is like paper. Flash-fry it and then coat it with spices. The same traditional cooking method can be used with duck as well.
Sweet rice balls are typically consumed during China’s Lantern Festival, 15th day of the celebration and the first night a full moon is apparent during the lunar year. The roundness of the rice balls signifies a complete circle of harmony and unity within the family.
They are known as tang yuan in Southern China, where the stuffing is put in last after the dough is made, whereas in Northern China, where the rice dumplings are called yuanxiao, the filling is made first and rolled onto flour in a bamboo basket. Both are served in a sweet ginger soup and traditional fillings include sesame paste, red bean or peanuts.
You can find these essential Chinese New Year foods in a number of flavours in the freezer aisle at Asia Market labelled ‘Glutinous Rice Balls’, or buy the rice flour, follow this Tang Yuan recipe from Irish-Chinese chef Kwanghi Chan, and make and fill them yourself with a choice of chestnut, black sesame and sweet bean paste available in the store.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.Erica Bracken Erica Bracken