February 7th marks the beginning of the rodent’s twelve-month reign as the Year of the Rat. The more popular Chinese New Year traditions (like the dragon dance, red lanterns, and firecrackers) are easy to talk about, but I wanted to interview my Chinese parents for their take on the little-known food traditions of the holiday.
Each province in China celebrates different customs for the New Year, and I’ve discovered that the southern Cantonese are mighty superstitious folks. My mom began rattling off dishes that her family prepares and serves to guests.
- To begin with, Mom always serves a noodle dish—the strands of the noodles signify long life. Don’t cut the noodles before serving, otherwise you’re snipping your life short.
- A whole chicken, head and all, is served simply steamed to represent good health.
- A whole steamed fish, eyeballs and all, was served for abundance. The Chinese word for fish is yu, which according to my mom sounds similar to the Chinese word for “every year our family has something leftover and we always have enough.” The Chinese are very efficient in the language department.
- Crispy egg rolls, after being fried to a golden brown, resemble long gold bars.
- Handmade dumplings, either pan-fried or boiled, look like ancient Chinese gold ingots. My mom’s family used to hide a gold coin in one of the hundreds of dumplings that they would make and the lucky bastard who bit into the dumpling with the coin was to receive wealth and prosperity throughout the year (after paying the hefty dental bill, I’m sure).
- For luck, display plenty of tangerines, preferably big fat ones with leaves still attached.
- Also of great importance is nien goh, or steamed rice cake, which (says mom) signifies that “every year you reach a higher level of life.”
- But whatever you do, don’t serve squid, called yow yu. In the olden days, workers would have to travel far from home to work, often bringing personal belongings rolled up in a blanket. When a worker was fired, he was ordered to yow, or roll up his blanket, and pack his stuff to go home. Serving squid symbolizes being fired in the coming year. If your co-workers or subordinates pleasantly surprise you with a dish of succulent squid on February 7th, be very suspicious.
My father, from the Ling Po province of China, near Shanghai, is a simple man. Here are his words:
“In our kitchen, we would hang a portrait of the Kitchen God. The Kitchen God watches over you all year and on Chinese New Year, he goes back to the heavens and reports to the other gods of prosperity, fortune, and health, on what you’ve been doing and how well you’ve behaved. Before the end of the year, my family would create an elaborate banquet just for the Kitchen God and display the plates of noodles, dumplings, fish, candies, cakes, and meats right in front of his portrait. Basically, we bribed the Kitchen God to say nice things about us.”
So, there you have it. Whether you choose serve your friends and family a wonderful Chinese meal to welcome the Year of the Rat, or cook something to bribe the Kitchen God, here’s a fried noodle dish that will wish you a long life.
By Jaden Hair
Photo courtesy of Lola Kurka