As I walked through Oakland Chinatown this week, the streets overflowed with shoppers snapping up foods and flowers for New Year Celebrations: bright orange tangerines, huge yellow citrus globes (pomelos), bunches of leafy greens and cherry blossom branches.
I knew that many of the items spilling out of sidewalk bins symbolized good luck based on Cantonese homonyms and wished I could decipher the code. Of course, I could always hit the Internet, but why do that when I was so close to a wonderful resource: The Asian Branch of the Oakland Library.
I first inquired about a book on lucky foods for Chinese New Year. When the librarian told me that all the books on that subject were already checked out, I ventured to ask about her own experiences with New Year’s foods. She gently explained that there are so many regions of China, she couldn’t generalize, so she kindly called over a couple of other librarians. They were eager to help in my quest.
It took them a moment of reflection, however. (Just like Americans, French or Danish people can’t always tell you off the top of their of their head why they eat specific dishes for certain holidays. We probably all take for granted the foods we eat every year.) But with a little time and my careful questioning (okay, they sneaked a look at the Internet to get them started). But once they got the picture of what I was after, it became like a game, and the trio of helpful librarians came up with more and more examples.
First, they told me about various traditional sweets in Northern and Southern China. People in Northern China eat mochi, either plain or stuffed with red bean paste, whose name sounds like “get together.” In the South, a sweet glutinous rice pudding cake called nian gao is served to promote moving up to a higher standard of living. Nian means both sticky and year and Gao means both cake and high.
The word for Mandarin oranges – kum – sounds like “gold.” Fish – yu -sounds like “surplus” and heralds prosperity, but only if served with the head and tail attached to signify a good beginning and good ending. Pomelo – sounds like “to have’ and is another omen of abundance.
Not all symbolic foods need to be eaten; some are displayed as table centerpieces, while others can be hung around the house, such as lettuce and green onions. The word for lettuce sounds like “rising,” while green onions – sounds like “smarter kids,” the librarians told me.
The term for dried oysters sounds like “good business” and these are commonly paired with fat choy moss that sounds like “lots of money” and also is a play on the New Year’s greeting, “Gung Hay Fat Choy.”
Other foods are symbolic not for their sounds but for other properties: dumplings resemble gold nuggets, spring rolls take the shape of gold bars, while anything with seeds, such as lotus root, pumpkin seeds, red melon seeds, or kumquats, points to “lots of children.”
A whole chicken, presented with head and feet, symbolizes family togetherness. Uncut noodles convey “long life.”Blooming fresh flowers are traditional decoration and the word for pussy willow sounds like “money”.
Luckily, you don’t have to be Chinese to partake of any of these festive foods and it’s an added treat knowing the meaning behind these traditions. Another place to get into the holiday spirit is Masse’s Pastries in Berkeley, where pastry chef Paul Masse honors the Lunar New Year with green tea opera cake and blood orange mousse ringed with chocolate. You can also celebrate with his cakes in the shape of red firecrackers and bunnies for the Year of the Rabbit.
Read this article I wrote for KQED’s Bay Area Bites in 2012 for more lucky foods.
Here’s an extensive list of symbolic foods, if you are hungry for more.