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Suffolk private chef Lilian Hiw, of Lilian’s Kitchen, celebrates the Lunar New Year and tells us about its traditions and what the food that is served symbolises





Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is the most important and significant festival for the Chinese. It is a 15-day celebration marked by many traditions. The exact dates vary from year to year according to the lunar calendar. The festival falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice, usually between January 21 and February 20. This year it begins on Saturday, February 10 and ends on February 24.

THE ZODIAC

Each year in the lunar calendar is named after an animal, and the zodiac animals follow each other in a fixed order, repeating every 12 years. Legend has it that a long time ago, the Jade Emperor decided that there should be a way to measure time. He invited all the animals to compete in a river race and the first 12 animals to reach the other side of the river would be rewarded by having a year named after them. The first to land was the rat, followed closely by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and finally the pig. 2024 is the year of the Wood Dragon. The dragon symbolises power, nobility, honour, luck and success in traditional Chinese culture.

SPRING CLEANING

The New Year celebrations are about getting rid of the bad and welcoming in the new and good. In the run-up to the New Year, we give our homes a thorough cleaning, which symbolises sweeping away the bad luck of the previous year and making our home ready to receive good luck.

Lion Dance for Chinese New Year
Lion Dance for Chinese New Year

MONSTER NIAN

I love all the stories that surround the Chinese New Year. One legend has it that there was a monster called Nian, who came out of hiding at the start of each New Year to attack and feast on livestock and people, especially children. The villagers discovered, by accident, that Nian was terrified of loud noises, bright lights, fire and the colour red. So they stuck red paper decorations on doors, burned lanterns all night and set off firecrackers to scare the beast away. So every year the Chinese would wear red clothes, hang red scrolls on their doors, set off firecrackers and beat drums and cymbals for the Lion Dance. Red is also an auspicious colour and symbolises luck and prosperity!

DECORATIONS

Apart from warding off evil spirits and negativity, red is the main colour for the festival, as red is considered an auspicious colour, signifying prosperity and energy. Red lanterns and red couplets (paper scrolls with good wishes) are displayed during the New Year festivity.

A FAMILY REUNION

The eve of Chinese New Year is the most important day of the celebrations, it is the day when families from near and far return to the nest for the family reunion dinner. My mum used to prepare a steamboat dinner for us. The steamboat pot, which is round in shape, symbolises the union of the family and I have followed this tradition here in England with my husband and son.

Steamboat reunion dinner
Steamboat reunion dinner

I would describe the steamboat as a Chinese fondue. Visualise this: a pot of simmering broth in the middle of the table, surrounded by a selection of fresh vegetables, uncooked meat and seafood, noodles, rice and a selection of dipping sauces. We gather around to cook together, eat, chat and laugh together; sharing happiness and bonding.

RED PACKETS

As part of the lunar New Year celebrations, children are given a gift of money inserted into ornate looking red envelopes, known as hongbao in Mandarin, lai see in Cantonese, and ang pow in the Hokkien dialect. Given to children to wish them another safe and peaceful year, unmarried adults are also traditionally given one to bring them happiness and blessings.

GOLDEN FRUITS

We visit relatives and friends to pay our respects to our elders and to catch up with our peers. It is customary to bring a pair of mandarins or tangerines for our host. The roundness of the fruit symbolises abundance and the golden colour, wealth. It even sounds good - pronounced as ‘kum’ in Cantonese, it sounds like ‘gold’ and ‘cheng’ in Mandarin meaning ‘success’.

A dragon gift basket to be given to family and friends at Chinese New Year
A dragon gift basket to be given to family and friends at Chinese New Year

AUSPICIOUS FOOD

There are certain dishes that MUST be eaten, the auspicious symbolism of these traditional Chinese New Year foods is based on their pronunciation or appearance.

Dumplings

Chinese dumplings are made to look like silver and gold ingots. You guessed it - the more dumplings you eat, the more money you can make in the New Year!

Whole fish

In Chinese, ‘fish’ has the same pronunciation as ‘surplus’ or ‘extra'. To serve fish to your guests is to wish them “May you always have more than you need”; an abundance of wellbeing and prosperity, with a surplus at the end of the year to carry over into the New Year. When served with the head and tail intact, the fish carries an additional meaning: a positive beginning and end for the coming year. Traditionally, half of the fish is kept for the next day.

Prawns signify happiness and joy when served at Chinese New Year
Prawns signify happiness and joy when served at Chinese New Year

Prawns

In the Cantonese dialect, prawns is pronounced ‘ha’ which sounds like laughter “ha ha ha ha”, which is associated with the idea of happiness and joy.

Longevity noodles

Unsurprisingly, they symbolise a wish for longevity. These noodles are kept uncut, the longer the strands the better, representing long life. Served either fried or submerged in broth, the longer the noodles you eat, the longer you’ll live!

Spring rolls

Spring rolls get their name because they are traditionally eaten during the Spring Festival.

Spring rolls symbolise prosperity as they resemble gold bars
Spring rolls symbolise prosperity as they resemble gold bars

They are eaten for their resemblance to gold bars - another wish for prosperity.

Pineapple

In the Hokkien dialect ‘pineapple’ literally translates to ‘good luck come!’ Pineapple tarts are served in every household you visit during Chinese New Year. Heavenly melt-in-the-mouth light soft pastry filled with sticky pineapple jam, fragranced with cloves, just yum!

EVERYONE’S BIRTHDAY

The 7th day of the first lunar month is called ‘human day’ and is considered the birthday of all humans. So it is everybody’s birthday! Traditionally, a salad with shredded vegetables and fish is eaten for abundance and prosperity, hence the name ‘Prosperity salad’. Signifying abundance, this dish is the hallmark of any Lunar New Year feast. Guests surround the platter of salad, with chopsticks poised and ready to toss the salad while exchanging good wishes. The higher the toss, the more prosperous and successful the year ahead. Nowadays, the tossing of prosperity salad starts even before the new year celebrations begin!

Prosperity salad
Prosperity salad

THE 15TH DAY

The 15th day marks the first full moon after the Spring Festival, also known as yuán xiāo jié, which means ‘first night of the full moon’. The day is also known as Lantern Festival day.

Tangyuan (sweet glutinous rice balls in a sugar syrup) are eaten, their round shape and sweetness symbolising togetherness and family unity. In some Asian countries, children carry lanterns around the neighbourhood at night to mark the end of the festival.

I wish you a Happy and Healthy New Year!

Noodles signify longevity
Noodles signify longevity

Lilian’s Cookbook

My cookbook – Lilian’s Kitchen Home Cooked Food will be officially launched at the Buttermarket Waterstones on February 29. The arc Waterstones will be hosting a book signing on the March 23, I hope to see many of you there!

Books are now available to pre-order online from my website www.lilianskitchen.co.uk/category/cookbook

Cookery Classes

Asian Street Food – February 24th

Seafood – March 2

Thai and Vietnamese - April

Dim Sum – May

Chinese - June

Singapore and Malaysia – July

Sushi – Sept.