Chinese New Year starts this Saturday, January 25 — the first day of the annual Spring Festival that is considered the most important Chinese holiday. Also called the Lunar New Year, it is celebrated not just in China but in Vietnam, North and South Korea, Thailand, and generally anyplace with a significant Chinese population.
There are many rituals, traditions, taboos, and myths associated with Chinese New Year, but one of the most important aspects of the holiday is the consumption of a wide array of foods eaten not just for their gastronomic value but also for their symbolism. Among the most popular of these foods are dumplings (which used to be consumed at every holiday meal, especially in northern China), spring rolls (more popular than dumplings in the south), noodles of many descriptions, steamed fish, steamed whole chicken, and nian gao, or rice cakes.
Dumplings are a token of the transition from the old year to the new one (the word for dumpling sounds like the words for “exchange” and “midnight”). According to some sources, they also signify wealth because their shape recalls that of the gold coins of ancient China. Similarly, it is said that the golden exterior of properly fried spring rolls suggests wealth and treasure.
New Year noodles are called “longevity noodles,” are in fact one single unbroken strand of dough, a reference to long life. Fish earns its place on the menu because the word for fish is pronounced like that for “surplus” or “extra,” invoking an abundant supply of money or food in the coming year. A whole chicken, especially when brought to the table with its head, tail, and feet intact, symbolizes completeness and by extension the togetherness of family; the feet, sometimes called “phoenix claws,” also suggest the ability to hold onto money. “Nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year” — higher in the sense of more prosperous or successful.
According to statistics compiled by DoorDash, America’s largest food delivery service, diners in this country — at least those who order in food — don’t necessarily favor a traditional New Year menu. The single most popular Lunar New Year order in 2019 was in fact a noodle dish, though it wasn’t a Chinese one — it was pad Thai.
Dumplings, in the form of pot stickers, were the sixth favorite order, but spring rolls showed up only in the form of banana spring rolls, the top Asian-style dessert for last year’s holiday. DoorDash reported that throughout the year last year, however, spring rolls were one of the 15 most popular food orders in America.
There were five chicken dishes in the top ten, none of them steamed (and certainly none of them involving head, tail, or feet): sesame chicken (No. 4), orange chicken (No. 5), chicken lettuce wraps (No. 7), sweet and sour chicken (No. 8), and chicken fried rice (No. 10). Chicken-lovers should note that these are the best restaurant chicken dishes in America.
No fish of any description appeared on the DoorDash list, which was filled out by fried rice (No. 2), Mongolian beef (No. 3), and wonton soup (No. 9).
Not surprisingly, since California is the state with the largest Asian-American population by far (about five-and-a-half million, almost three times that of number-two New York), it was also the state that ordered the most Lunar New Year foods.