Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year, also called Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is the most important of all traditional Chinese festivals and celebrated by every Chinese community worldwide. It is a time for family reunion and to wish each other happiness, good health, peace and prosperity. Each year is symbolised by an animal zodiac sign, in 12-year cycles, in the order of Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.
According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2023 is the year of the Rabbit. People born in the year of the Rabbit are said to be kind, gentle, skillful and patient.
Chinese New Year traditions
The celebration starts a few days before the New Year and ends on the 15th day (the Lantern Festival). During the festive season, windows and doors are decorated with red scrolls.
The colour red, believed to be a colour of good luck, joy and prosperity holds a significant place in Chinese New Year celebrations. People often wear new clothes to signify a new start. Red ‘lucky’ envelopes with money are given to children and young people. Traditionally, red lanterns are displayed, with lion dances and firecrackers to drive away evil spirits and symbolise joy for the New Year.
Chinese New Year foods
The foods enjoyed during New Year have a special emphasis on bringing luck and fortune in the coming year. The names of dishes served and/or their ingredients often sound like words and phrases referring to wishes expressed or hold a symbolic meaning.
Why is it eaten?
The pronunciation of ‘fish’ is like ‘abundance’ in Chinese; therefore, eating fish is seen to bring about abundance in the coming year. It’s important that the fish is served whole with the head and tail intact, to ensure a good start and finish and to avoid bad luck throughout the year. It's also important to leave leftovers for the next day because this signifies that the prosperity will overflow.
Fish is a good source of protein and minerals such as phosphorus, potassium, iodine and selenium. Oily fish is additionally a great source of long-chain omega-3 fats and vitamin D. We should all be aiming to eat two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily.
Why are they eaten?
Tangerine sounds like the Chinese word for ‘luck’ and orange sounds like the Chinese word for ‘wealth’ and so these are often eaten or displayed during the Chinese New Year celebrations to bring happiness and prosperity.
The Cantonese word for pomelo sounds the same as the words for 'prosperity' and 'status'. Pomelo fruits are also symbolic of family unity.
Citrus fruits count towards your 5 A DAY and are a good source of vitamin C, folate and thiamin.
Why are they eaten?
Leaves signify longevity. Long, leafy greens like pak choi are served whole to wish long life for parents.
Leafy green vegetables provide us with vitamin A, vitamin K, folate, vitamin C, manganese and fibre.
Why is it eaten?
Chicken is also popular at Chinese New Year, symbolising the coming together of families and a good marriage. Serving the bird whole emphasises family unity.
Chicken is a great source of protein; avoid the skin to reduce its fat content.
Why are they eaten?
Noodles are served unbroken (not cut) and served as long as possible to symbolise a longer life.
Try using wholewheat noodles for extra fibre.
Why are they eaten?
Chinese dumplings can be made to look like Chinese silver ingots (boat-shaped, oval and turned up at the two ends). Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during the New Year celebrations, the more money you can make in the New Year.
Dumplings generally consist of meat, fish or finely chopped vegetables wrapped in a thin dough. While making them, families sometimes tuck added good-luck foods like peanuts (to bring long life) into some of them.
Dumplings can be steamed instead of fried to reduce their fat content.
Top tips for cooking healthier Chinese cuisine:
Here are a few top tips for cooking a healthy Chinese meal at home:
Why not try cooking a stir-fry? You only need to use a small amount of oil when cooking stir-fries - invest in a wok or non-stick frying pan so you do not need to add as much. For a healthy stir-fry try adding lean meat or fish and lots of seasonal vegetables.
You do not have to be vegetarian to embrace tofu as an ingredient. Made from soya beans, it's not only high in protein and a good source of calcium, but it also absorbs all the flavours from the spices and marinades, making it a tasty addition to a Chinese meal.
Making your own broth soup can be simple, healthy and tasty. All you need is a low salt stock, vegetables, a lean source of protein (such as skinless chicken breast, prawns, fish), herbs and spices.
Why not try making your own sauce so you can control the amount of salt and sugar that you put into it? Fish, oyster and soy sauce can be high in salt, so use sparingly or opt for a lower salt version. Instead of adding salt why not try using a traditional Chinese flavour enhancer such as dried mushrooms, shrimps, clams, herbs and spices to deepen flavours and enrich sauces and stocks.
Opt for brown rice or wholemeal noodles instead of white rice and noodles and include lots of vegetables to increase your dietary fibre and vitamin and mineral intakes. Water chestnuts, beansprouts, pak choi, carrots, peas and baby corn are all good sources of fibre.
Make sure your portion sizes are not too large.
Top tips for ordering healthier Chinese takeaway or restaurant meals:
Although traditional Chinese food can be healthy, some popular Chinese restaurant dishes can be high in salt, added sugars and/or saturated fat.
- Anything that’s battered or described on the menu as 'crispy' generally means it is deep fried and can therefore be high in fat. Also watch out for starters such as prawn crackers, prawn toast and spring rolls because these are usually deep fried. Sweet and sour pork is normally battered.
- Instead of ordering fried rice, noodles or dumplings try opting for boiled or steamed varieties.
- Steamed, grilled or boiled dishes are the best option, but stir-fries can also be lower in fat and often include lots of vegetables.
- Try selecting dishes which contain lean cuts of meat, fish or tofu to help reduce your saturated fat intake.
- Be aware that sweet tasting sauces such as ‘sweet and sour’, hoisin and sweet chilli contain free sugars so choose these less often.
- When eating from lots of different dishes we can eat more than usual, and sometimes portion sizes can be very large. Try to know when enough is enough and share dishes with other people.
- Avoid desserts which are deep fried, such as banana or apple fritters. Some Chinese restaurants offer fresh fruit platters.
- Why not reduce your alcohol intake by drinking Chinese tea or water, lower in calories and can help to keep you hydrated!
恭喜發財 (pronounced as ‘Gong Xi Fa Cai’ in Mandarin or ‘Gong Hei Fat Choy’ in Cantonese, meaning 'Wishing you lots of fortune for the New Year'.
Last reviewed January 2017. Revised February 2023.
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.