Chinese New Year, the biggest celebration in the world’s most populous country, is a day of opulent feasting and family gatherings that spans across China’s vast and diverse territories. With its rich tapestry of 56 ethnic groups traversing immensely different climates and landscapes, from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, to the ice villages of Harbin, to the misty bamboo forests of the Shangri-La, to the golden sands of the Gobi Desert, there are, literally, one billion ways to celebrate this ancient celestial hallmark. Despite the vibrant range of time-honoured traditions, there is one essential commonality that reigns paramount: the importance of a New Year’s Eve feast (Nian Ye Fan), which sets the tone for the coming year. The exact date of Chinese New Year varies from year to year as it is based on the Chinese lunar calendar. The calendar is an ancient wisdom finely tuned to the changing of the seasons and the environment that has guided China’s largely agrarian society on the best times for planting and harvesting for millenniums.
In celebration of this glorious holiday, we’ve put together a mini guide of festival foods in each of China’s five major regions. After all, what better way to understand a culture than through the plate?
Uniquely regional: Northern China, the region north of the Yangtze River, is home to Confucian ideals and is considered the birthplace of Chinese civilisation. Comprising Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, Mandarin is the dialect most widely spoken here. It became the official language of China in the early 20th century. However, the Mongols and Korean tribes to the far north both have their own local dialects. Beijing, the capital – and my home town – is situated at the heart of this region. For me, there’s no Chinese New Year quite like a northern one, with its crisp, dry winters, frozen landscape and cheerful dance of 扭秧歌 during temple fairs.
Festive eats: With a dry climate and harsh winters, the north has been the cradle of wheat cultivation for centuries. Other traditional staples include cabbage and pork, so it’s no surprise that the dish that is closest to any northerner’s heart is a piping hot plate of plump, juicy dumplings. Traditionally, all family members gather around the communal table to make dumplings, which are auspiciously shaped like the gold ingot, the money of ancient China. A sumptuous feast of meat and fish is prepared for dinner, and as the gong strikes midnight on Chinese New Year, a second feast of freshly boiled dumplings is served. No matter how full you are from the first dinner, it is traditional and a good omen to gobble down at least a couple of dumplings. My family have always celebrated CNY with dumplings while watching the countdown on CCTV’s wildly popular Spring Festival Gala. After the clock strikes midnight, the skies (and buildings) shake from a cascade of fireworks.
Uniquely regional: Lining the east coast of China are the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, Taiwan, Jiangxi and Shandong. Eastern China is also home to the commercial powerhouse that is Shanghai. A rich symphony of local dialects is spoken in this region, including Wu, Gan, Min, Hakka and Hui. The topography here varies drastically, ranging from the water-canal villages of Suzhou and the majestic Yellow Mountain of Anhui to the glittery cityscape of Shanghai’s the Bund.
Festive eats: Springs rolls are popular throughout eastern China for their crunchy golden crust and delicious fillings. The stuffing varies, but the main ingredient is usually shredded cabbage, which gives the rolls a hint of sweetness. Coincidentally, spring rolls look auspiciously like golden bars. Tangyuan, sweet dumplings made of glutinous rice flour with a black sesame or peanut filling, are also popular throughout the region. The round shape of the dumplings is a homophone for ‘togetherness’ or ‘family unity’ (考途). Fish is essential to any Chinese New Year feast, because phonetically the yu sound is the same pronunciation as the word meaning surplus or plenty. In the eastern region, the head and tail of the fish should be left intact to symbolise a good beginning and end to the coming year.
Uniquely regional: Western China is the largest district, making up almost half of China’s land mass. It borders India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Nepal and Vietnam and consists of the six provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Shaanxi, Gansu and Qinghai, alongside Ningxia Hui, Tibet and Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous regions. This is the most culturally diverse region of China, with a mind-boggling range of contrasting religions, dialects and ethnicities. The biggest city in this frontier region is Chengdu, home of bamboo groves, panda bears and tongue-numbing peppercorns.
Festive eats: Depending on where you are in the region, pork may or may not be served. To the far west in Xinjiang, a mostly Muslim district, mutton with herbs and spices, alongside hearty flatbreads, reigns supreme. This is, after all, where the ancient spice trails wove their way through. Head further inland, and you get to Sichuan, where preserved pork and sausages are king. Steamed over plump kernels of rice, these flavourful meats are simply heavenly. The famous Sichuan hotpot is also a must in the region as the bubbling cauldron brimming with spicy red chilli symbolises prosperity and growth.
Uniquely regional: The smallest region in China, central China consists of only three provinces: Henan, Hubei and Hunan. Home to the Shaolin Temple and the mystical Zhangjiajie mountain range (which inspired the Avatar landscape), the region might be small but packs plenty of punch. This is also a culturally diverse region, with the province of Hunan alone being home to 41 ethnic minority groups such as the Tujia, Miao, Dong, Yao, Bai, Hui, Zhuang and Uyghur.
Festive eats: Chicken, which phonetically sounds like the word meaning ‘to accumulate’, is an auspicious menu item. In Hubei, chicken soup is served in the morning, followed by more chicken as the focal point for the dinner feast. The breadwinner of the family is given the chicken feet to eat as they symbolise ‘grabbing money’, the younger members are given chicken wings to symbolise them ‘soaring high and prospering’ and the caretaker of the family is given pieces containing chicken bones as he or she is the ‘backbone’ of the family. In Hunan, the chicken served must be a rooster, and there also needs to be mountains of red chilli peppers layered over steamed fish. The red colour of the peppers is a symbol for luck and prosperity. Sweet rice wine is also drunk around the dinner table.
Uniquely regional: Dominated mostly by the province of Guangdong (Canton), southern China also includes Hainan, Macau, Hong Kong and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. Needless to say, Cantonese is the main dialect spoken here, and seafood is a large part of the local cuisine.
Festive eats: When I celebrated my first Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, I was baffled by how different the festive dishes were between the north and south. Nian gao, a sweet rice cake made of glutinous rice and red sugar, looked and tasted different from the nian gao back in Beijing, which had layers of rice, red beans and dried fruits. The auspicious meaning behind the sweet treat remains the same as the phonetic sound of nian gao is the same as ‘another year higher’ or the lucky phrase ‘another year of improvements’. Pen cai is a popular festive dish that sees the whole family gathered around a massive communal bowl layered with delicacies such as abalone, chicken, prawns and dried scallops. Another southern Chinese favourite is turnip cake, originating in Guangdong, which is served either steamed or fried and is often packaged as gifts. Fa cai (a kind of black moss) is also eaten during this time of year as it sounds like ‘get rich’ in Chinese.
Fish is a quintessential part of any Chinese New Year feast thanks to its auspicious homophone meaning ‘surplus’. Traditionally, the head of the fish is placed facing the most distinguished or eldest guest at the table as a sign of respect, and all those at the table can only start eating the fish once the honoured guest has taken the first bite.
The largest human migration occurs in the 40-day period surrounding Chinese New Year, when hundreds of millions of Chinese return home to celebrate this epic holiday with loved ones. In 2014, an estimated 3.6 billion trips were made during this period.
Want to gain the biggest audience in one night? Get a spot on CCTV’s iconic Spring Festival Gala, likely the most watched TV programme in China. Last year, the estimated viewership was about 800 million in one night. Plenty of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop stars have jostled for a spot, alongside international celebs such as Celine Dion, Shakira and Sophie Marceau.
Dishes prepared for CNY feasts should be in even numbers as odd numbers symbolise difficulties in the coming year.
The Laba holiday happens on the eighth day of the lunar month prior to Chinese New Year and is based on an ancient festival that occurs shortly after the winter solstice. On the day, laba porridge full of jujubes, red beans and peanuts is eaten, as well as garlic steeped in vinegar that will turn a vibrant green hue come CNY. It’s rather difficult to believe, but garlic pickled on any other day remains a cream colour!
Fruits that are golden in colour symbolise fullness and wealth and are highly coveted during CNY, hence all the orange trees we see decorating the 852.
In folklore, Nian (which means ‘year’ in Chinese) was a vicious monster who ate animals and humans. People feared Nian but soon realised that the beast was afraid of the colour red and fireworks, and thus the tradition continues of using fireworks and the colour red to ward off Nian every CNY.