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Food traditions, family togetherness are at the heart of lunar new year


Eat only vegetables and skip the fresh tofu.

Keep those long beans whole and you'll live longer.

Those are just a couple of the ancient food traditions attached to the Chinese New Year, which begins Monday.

More precisely, it should be called the Lunar New Year, since the shifting date is based on a lunar calendar, and the holiday is also celebrated by Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Malaysians and others.

That's something like a third of the people on the planet celebrating. Depending on which historian you believe, it's either the year 4710, 4709 or 4649.

This is the start of a two-week holiday, beginning with the new moon and culminating 15 days later at the full moon. While New Year's Eve and Day are most important, many observers take several days off.

The new year festivity reflects many aspects of the human soul. It's a time for togetherness, remembering family and ancestors–and eating.

Food traditions are central to the observance and are well-defined. That works out well for those of us who like to cook and eat, whatever our cultural background.

Asian meals in general, and Chinese in particular, feature many more dishes on the table than we are used to in the West. But they tend to feature things we've come to consider healthful in recent years.

Vegetables and rice are the main ingredients with relatively little meat–no giant steaks here, as the average Chinese meal features about 75 grams of meat and 100 grams of poultry per person–little bread and virtually no dairy.

Low-cholesterol groundnut oils are used for cooking, and quick searing methods such as stir-frying mean less fat absorption and preservation of nutrition and flavour.

But it's the dos and don'ts that make Chinese dishes for the new year special.

New Year's Day is vegetarian, since it is bad luck to start the year by killing anything. Fresh tofu is off the menu as it is white in colour and unlucky (white in much of Asia is a symbol of death and misfortune). Dried tofu is OK, though.

People in southern China favour a pudding of sweetened glutinous rice called nian gao. Up north, steamed wheat bread called man tou is a must for the feast.

And dumplings–lots and lots of dumplings filled with a wide variety of ingredients, suggestive of a large and prosperous family–are devoured everywhere.

Then there's fat choy hoi chi, a stir fry of special black seaweed, dried oysters and mushrooms, which is a classic of the new year table ensuring good business and fortune.

This brings us to another important aspect of the celebration. The appearance of certain types of dishes is no accident. Everything has special meaning and symbolism.

Chicken represents prosperity for the months ahead and, whatever you do, prepare and serve that bird whole (but remember, not on Monday). It means completeness. In fact, people insist on preparing the chicken with head and feet intact for that reason.

A roast of pork with the skin left on says you will be wealthy. Fish, again kept whole, is popular because it offers abundance. And noodles will bring you long life–providing they are not cut up.

With so much meaning to so many things, a lunar new year feast includes as many different foods as possible, which in itself suggests abundance, all served simultaneously on large platters or bowls from which diners serve themselves.

For dessert, the Chinese prefer to wrap up with fresh fruit, in particular the fruit of new year–the tangerine.

Shapes and colours are important as well: Round foods suggest the natural cycle of the year; red in clothing and decor brings good luck; gold points to riches, of course.

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