Chinese New Year Food February 04, 2016 07:36

Chinese New Year Food: Top Lucky Foods and Symbolism

Certain dishes are eaten during the Chinese New Year for their symbolic meaning. Lucky food is served during the 16-day festival season, especially New Year’s Eve, which is believed to bring good luck for the coming year. The auspicious symbolism of these foods is based on their pronunciations or appearance.


Not only do the dishes themselves matter, but also the preparation, and ways of serving and eating mean a lot.

The most common Chinese New Year foods includes dumplings, fish, spring rolls, and niangao.

Fish 鱼 Yú /yoo/
steamed fish
In Chinese, "fish" sounds like 'surplus'. Chinese people always like to have a surplus at the end of the year, because they think if they have managed to save something at the end of the year, then they can make more in the next year.

Fish can be cooked in various ways such as boiling, steaming, and braising. The most famous Chinese fish dishes include steamed weever, West Lake fish with pickled cabbage and chili, steamed fish in vinegar sauce, and boiled fish with spicy broth.

The Meaning of Various Fish

What fish should be chosen for the New Year feast is based on auspicious homophonics.

  • Crucian carp: As the first character of ‘crucian carp' (鲫鱼 jìyú \jee-yoo\) sounds like the Chinese word 吉 (jí /jee/ ‘good luck'), eating crucian carp is considered to bring good luck for the next year.
  • Chinese mud carp: The first part of the Chinese for “mud carp” (鲤鱼 lǐyú /lee-yoo/) is pronounced like the word for gifts (礼 lǐ /lee/). So Chinese people think eating mud carp during the Chinese New Year symbolizes wishing for good fortune.
  • Catfish: The Chinese for “catfish” (鲶鱼 niányú /nyen-yoo/) sounds like 年余 (nián yú) meaning ‘year surplus'. So eating catfish is a wish for a surplus in the year.
  • Eating two fish: one on New Year's Eve and one on New Year's Day, (if written in a certain way) sounds like a wish for a surplus year-after-year.
  • If only one catfish is eaten: eating the upper part of the fish on New Year's Eve and the remainder on the first day of the new year can be spoken with the same homophonic meaning.
  • Happy Chinese New YearFish is an auspicious Chinese New Year symbol
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  • How a Fish Is Eaten Matters a Lot


    The fish should be the last dish left with some left over, as this has auspicious homophonics for there being surpluses every year. This is practiced north of the Yangtze River, but in other areas the head and tail of the fish shouldn't be eaten until the beginning of the year, which expresses the hope that the year will start and finish with surplus.

    There are some rules related to the position of the fish.

    The head should be placed toward distinguished guests or elders, representing respect.
    Diners can enjoy the fish only after the one who faces the fish head eats first.
    The fish shouldn't be moved. The two people who face the head and tail of fish should drink together, as this is considered to have a lucky meaning.
    These customs are observed in a lively and light-hearted spirit, full of laughing and banter.

    Lucky Sayings for Eating Fish

    年年有余 (Niánnián yǒu yú /nyen-nyen yo yoo/): May you always have more than you need!
    鱼跃龙门 (Yú yuè lóngmén /yoo ywair long-mnn/): Success in your exam! ('A fish leaping over the dragon gate' implies successfully passing a competitive examination.)