February is pretty dreary, being so far past New Year’s Eve and with spring still weeks (or months) away—but there is a midwinter celebration to look forward to, and it’s one of the best in the world. Chinese New Year (or, more accurately, Lunar New Year) begins this year on February 19 and ends March 5, meaning there are over two weeks of music, parades, food, and general merriment to enjoy during an otherwise unforgiving time of year.
This year is the Year of the Sheep or the Year of the Goat … and, more specifically, a year of the Wood Goat, which occurs only every 60 years. The symbol for this year is the yang, Yahoo reports, which can symbolize any of the members of the Caprinae subfamily, including goats, sheep, and rams. Lucky colors for the year are brown, red, and purple, and lucky numbers are two and seven.
As with all celebrations that center around time spent with loved ones, food is a big part of Chinese New Year. Many of the dishes commonly served during the holiday contain foods symbolizing luck, wealth, and good health—all things we’d like to have be part of our year. Here are six foods that both help ensure prosperity during the coming year, and taste great.
1. San yang kai tai
Because of which year it is, dishes that feature goat will be particularly popular. This traditional goat stew is one popular choice—its name used to be a good-luck greeting in Chinese, and the character for goat is found in the one for good luck. The dish contains goat meat, cabbage, radish, green onion, and ginger. You could also try Beijing lamb stew or Szechuan ginger goat.
2. Nian gao
The gao of this cake’s name sounds like the one for tall or high, but nian gao means “year cake” and it symbolizes reaching new personal highs in the coming year. That can refer to many different things: for example, the continued growth and good health of children, a growing fortune, a new career achievement, or academic success. This steamed cake is made of glutinous rice flour, oil, and brown sugar. It sometimes also has ingredients like lotus leaves, dates, or chestnuts, all with different positive symbolism.
This is what dumplings of different kinds are called during Chinese New Year celebrations, in reference to an ancient Chinese currency. That’s why eating dumplings like jiaozi, which are filled with pork and cabbage, is meant to bring prosperity in the new year—they are particularly popular in the northern part of the country. More pleats in your dumplings mean more prosperity to come, and dumplings should be arranged in lines because a circular arrangement means your life is just going around in circles and not moving forward.
4. Tangerines and oranges
These citrus fruits are commonly displayed during Chinese New Year because they symbolize wealth and luck—two things that should come to you if you eat tangerines and oranges or set them out in your own home. CHOW reports that the tradition comes from the fact that the Chinese word for tangerine (gut jai) sounds like luck, and that for orange sounds like gold. Pro tip: it’s better if your fruit has leaves, which signals longevity, and bad if they are grouped in fours, because that number symbolizes death.
5. Noodle dishes
The longer the better for your noodle dishes, whatever you choose—long noodles signify longevity, another key theme of Chinese New Year traditions. Long beans hold the same symbolism. Try this New York Times recipe for longevity noodles with chicken and mushrooms, or a vegetarian-friendly option from Food and Wine.
6. Whole fish
According to Rosemary Gong in Good Luck Life: The Essential Guide to Chinese American Celebrations and Culture, the word for fish (yu) sounds like that for abundance, and of course it’s always great to have more than you need. Different fish have different meanings: crucian carp brings luck, Chinese mud carp sends wishes for good fortune, and catfish serves as a wish for a surplus in the coming year. Serve your fish with head and tail intact, to ensure both a good start and a good finish to the year, and place the head towards distinguished guests or elders to show respect.
Terri Coles is a freelance writer living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She’s a recovering picky eater.