With January almost in the books and 2022 underway, the Chinese New Year is set to kick off on February 1. The Chinese New Year, (also known as the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year) celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar, as well as the beginning of the spring season. This year marks the Year of the Tiger, a zodiac sign that describes those born in tiger years as being fiercely independent as well as possessing strong self-esteem. In Chinese culture, there is great value put on the symbolism of the food eaten during celebrations, especially New Year celebrations, because these symbols are meant to bring good luck and prosperity to the coming year ahead. There isn’t necessarily a specific focus on seafood for Chinese New Year celebrations, however a lot of traditional dishes are seafood based, and have very meaningful symbolism.
Whole fish are an indispensable dish and one of the most commonly seen traditions on a Chinese New Year reunion dinner table. The Chinese pronunciation of fish is ‘yu’ which translates to surplus or fortune. Rather than saying ‘Happy New Year’ it is more traditional to say ‘Nian nian you yu’ which translates to ‘May you have surpluses and bountiful harvests every year.’ Different fish being served can have different meanings as well, for example the Chinese mud carp is known as ‘li’ in China, so eating this fish for the Chinese New Year brings people good luck and blessing. Crucian carp are known as ‘ji’ which means very good fortune, and catfish are known as ‘nianyu’ which literally means ‘year surplus’ and stands for a rich life. Although there is no specific fish you must serve or preparation you must follow, there are still rules to keep in mind when serving or enjoying fish during a New Year reunion dinner. Keeping the head and fins intact during preparation and serving the whole fish in its entirety reflects the idea of carrying something through from beginning to end as well as a successful completion of the year. It is seen as unlucky to turn the fish over after eating one side, and to show respect, the head of the fish needs to face towards the elders or distinguished guests to show they are invited to eat first. Some traditions see two whole fish prepared, with one of them being saved for the next day to symbolize surplus, and in Southern China, it is common to eat only the middle part of the fish on New Years Eve, leaving the head and tail to the next day to symbolize completeness.
Lobsters are another must have for any Chinese New Year menu and have become a growing tradition among younger generations, particularly in higher income cities such as Shanghai. The lobster would be the highlight of the meal as it is considered a luxury seafood in China due to the fact that North American lobsters are imported. This drives up the price when compared to locally caught seafood and makes lobsters a sort of status symbol in China. As lobster is cooked, it turns red which is considered a lucky color, particularly around the Chinese New Year. In recent years, demand for lobster has seen Chinese buyers charter multiple whole airplanes just so they could import lobsters, with over 13 million pounds of North American lobster being sent to China from American exporters in just the first 11 months of 2021! Another claim to fame for lobsters around the Chinese New Year is their resemblance to dragons, which play a large role in the celebrations as well. The red dragon symbolizes good luck and prosperity, and each year The Dragon Dance is performed each year which consists of multiple talented and coordinated people moving and dancing fluidly beneath a large dragon costume. This dance is a way to usher in good tidings for the new year, and the lobsters’ similarities to these mythical creatures add to the symbolic meaning of its placement on the reunion dinner.
The Chinese Lunar New Year is a way to celebrate the ending to the winter season and welcome the start of the spring season with open arms. Whole fish and lobster aren’t the only foods enjoyed during this celebration, and as you can see that it is more so about what the food symbolizes that is important rather than the actual preparation itself. Although these are commonly found amongst reunion dinner tables, there is no guide or requirement saying they must be served. Each of these dishes are open to the chef’s own interpretation and can be prepared whichever way they prefer, so long as the symbolism within the dish is upheld, making it is a delicious way to bring good luck and fortune to you and your loved ones for the coming year.