Chinese New Year series (3) By Keoni Everington CNA Staff Writer
Now that you are well versed in the pitfalls to avoid during the Spring Festival from Part 1 and on Chinese New Year’s Day from Part 2 of this series, it is now time to familiarize yourself with the culinary customs on the first day of the year in Taiwan.
1. Radish cake
The Taiwanese pronunciation of “radish” in “radish cake” (菜頭粿), “caitaogui” is a homonym with the word “luck” (彩頭).
Throughout the Chinese world, it is a common custom to eat extra long noodles called “longevity noodles” (長壽麵) on New Year’s Day to symbolize a long life.
3. Fish (most, but not all of it)
The Chinese word for “fish” (魚) is a homonym with the word for “surplus” (餘), which can be found in the popular Chinese New Year phrase “having an abundance every year” (年年有餘). Eating the entire fish would signify that there would be no such remainder or surplus in the coming year, therefore people leave some of it uneaten on this occasion.
4. Rice instead of porridge
In previous times of hardship, people had to resort to eating porridge due to a lack of an adequate supply of rice. Therefore, it is considered inauspicious to eat porridge as the first meal of the New Year. Instead, it is better to eat properly cooked rice left over from the previous day.
5. Tangerines, oranges and kumquats
The Mandarin pronunciation for “orange” or “tangerine” (橘子) sounds a bit like the word for “luck” (吉利) and the color symbolizes gold. The alternative character for orange (橙) is homophonic with the word for “success” (成). The Chinese word for “kumquat” (金橘) actually has the word “gold” in it, so naturally it is a symbol for gold, fortune, and wealth.
The shape of dumplings is similar to gold ingots (元寶) once used as currency, and for fun, some families stick coins inside a few of them. The person who gets a dumpling with a coin inside will have extra good luck for the year. Also, the word for “dumpling” (餃子) is homophonic with the word “small coin” (角子) used in ancient times.
The pronunciation of “niangao” (年糕) — sticky rice cakes — sounds like “each year higher” (年高). This ties in nicely with the New Year’s expression “getting higher and higher year after year” (年年高升), and can apply to anything from a child’s height to company sales.
8. Hair moss
There is a black, hair-like cyanobacteria called “hair moss” or “fat choy” (髮菜) that is a homonym with the word for “fortune” (發財). It is widely sought after in the Chinese world for New Year’s Day, but it is not advisable to eat it in excess as a study at the Chinese University of Hong Kong found it contains a toxic amino acid that could harm the function of nerve cells.
Continuing with the theme of prosperity and riches, the first character for “fagao” or “prosperity cake” (發糕) is the same as the first character in the word for “fortune” (發財). It is also a pun because it has the dual meaning of both rising wealth and rising in the sense of bread leavening.
10. Leaf mustard
Taiwan’s Hakka people eat leaf mustard for its perceived ability to aid longevity, which they call the “long life vegetable” (長年菜), and because the word “long” (長) is also used in the New Year’s greeting “longevity” (長壽). It is important to cook and eat the leaves whole, because cutting them would mean cutting short your life.
The 15th day of the Lunar New Year is known as the “Lantern Festival” (元宵節) and it is customary to eat sweet soup dumplings known as “tangyuan” on this day. The name tangyuan (湯圓) sounds similar to the word for “reunion” (團圓) and is a time for family members to gather together and share this sweet treat. Tangyuan are also eaten on the winter solstice (冬至) in late December in the Gregorian calendar.
(By Keoni Everington)