China is famously obsessed with food, and at no other time is this more apparent than during the country's New Year or Spring Festival. This centuries old traditional of marking the end of the winter season is today still a family-focused affair. Different regions embrace their own traditions of marking the start of the spring and ensuring that good fortune and prosperity will be enjoyed by their loved ones with the giving of Hong Bao (red envelopes filled with money). Yet, despite the regional variation, one factor does unite every family across China and Chinese communities across the globe, which is, of course, the importance of food.
Indeed, when probing the background of this colourful and vibrant festival, it's worth remembering that this is a land where work, play, romance, business and family all revolve around good nosh. Meals are not simply about satisfying hunger, they are a vital part of the Chinese social fabric: business deals are struck and friends are made over Dim Sum and Peking Duck. It is literally always considered the first priority during social occasions - when the Chinese meet their usual greeting is 'Ni Chifan le ma?' - 'Have you eaten yet?'
[Related article: How to make tangyuan (glutinous rice balls)]
So, unsurprisingly the key element of the Chinese New Year involves families gathering to feast on New Year's Eve, before enjoying a week-long holiday, celebrating the arrival of spring with fireworks, parades, and more fireworks! The festival begins on the stroke of midnight on the first day of the Chinese lunar month, and can fall anywhere between January 20 and February 19. The ancient Chinese lunar calendar dictates that the New Year begins on the first night of a new moon after the sun enters Aquarius. In the UK this year it will fall on February 10th.
The origins of this festival in the Chinese Calendar are complicated, but in essence popular myth states that in Ancient China a monster known as Nian would devour villagers on New Year's Eve, until a God disguised as an ordinary man asked Nian to devour other monsters in the region, before departing together. The villagers, grateful for being given a peaceful existence, were told to use fire and the colour red to warden off any beasts that should return. This is, of course, an entertaining yarn but ultimately no one really understands for definite the historical origins of the festival.
But then, most Chinese won't worry too much about how it all began and will just enjoy the colourful celebrations and New Year's Eve feasting that involves such treats as duck, lobster (especially in the south) and of course, the vital spring rolls. For those of you who are planning to celebrate at home, here are some of the more traditional dishes and festive treats to serve on New Year's Eve:
Chūn juǎn recipe (Spring Rolls)
Arguably the most famous Chinese dish of all, spring rolls are named precisely because they are traditionally consumed during the New Year celebrations. You can buy the pastry today at supermarkets, as starting from scratch is quite a messy effort! Vary the filling as you like and feast on this delicious Chinese treat.
Jiaozi recipe (Chinese Dumplings)
The ubiquitous Chinese dumplings are always served over the Spring Festival and originally hail from Northern China, where traditionally the pastry is shaped as money, to bring good fortune and wealth for the year ahead. Making them from scratch is something of a labour of love; requiring time and a lot of patience but again, you can purchase them from select stores. If you are going to do it the hard way, make a large batch and freeze them in advance for your party.
Beijing Kaoya recipe (Peking Duck)
Everyone's favourite Chinese dish, Peking Duck at its finest is simply exquisite: tender, aromatic duck breast wrapped in pancakes accompanied by plum sauce is a moreish proposition. No wonder it soon disappears from the table at restaurants! Purists will say that only in Beijing can you sample the real deal: in the Chinese capital the ducks are roasted in ovens fired up with fruit tree wood. For the rest of us, try the recipe above.
Lo hon Jai recipe (Buddha's Delight)
A fantastic vegetarian dish that consists of over 18 different types of vegetables cooked in soy sauce until they are tender, sometimes with the addition of seafood or egg. The ingredients vary depending on which region is doing the cooking. The above recipe is a classic version of the dish.
Niangao recipe (Chinese New Year Pudding)
The perfect way to end your New Year's Eve feast, Niangao is a rich, sticky, rice pudding that is most often consumed in Eastern China. It is not hard to make and will impress your sweet toothed guests no end. It can be baked or steamed, depending on your preferences but baking is easier, as you don't have to stand fretting over the stove.
Màn màn chī!
Celebrating Chinese New Year in London
Also, don't forget the New Year's Eve parade in London, which begins in Trafalgar Square at 10:00am on Sunday. There will also be performances from local schools and community groups on a stage in Shaftesbury Avenue and naturally, food stalls and festivities galore in China Town. Finish the day with the glorious Fireworks display at 5:55pm.
Happy Chinese New Year!