What goes into a Chinese New Year feast? Phion explains

24 Jan 2020
By Phion C., Student at Durham University

The Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, will run from 5 February. 2019 is the year of the pig, associated with good luck and new beginnings.

Thinking about celebrating with your flatmates? You should!

Here’s how to make a traditional Chinese New Year meal.

The New Year’s Eve dinner, which my family calls ‘the reunion meal’, is actually the most important tradition for Chinese people. Like Thanksgiving in the States, or Christmas in Europe, it is all about reuniting with family, especially those that are a long way from home.

In China, so rich in culture and so large, the traditional new year meal differs from region to region. But the New Year’s Eve feast typically starts with snacks, tea, and games like mahjong, cards, and boardgames. Popular snacks include:

  • coconut chips
  • dried fruits
  • pineapple tarts
  • almond cookies
  • fried sesame balls
  • honeycomb cookies (‘kuih rose’)
  • sponge cake (‘kuih bahulu’)
  • ‘bak kwa’ (salty-sweet dried meat, similar to jerky but softer and more moist)
  • pistachios
  • sunflower seeds
  • pumpkin seeds
  • walnuts

Glutinous rice cakes, which can be sweet or savoury, and water chestnuts with coconut cake are also popular as snacks or desserts. The rice cakes are called ‘nian gao’. The word ‘nian’ means sticky but it’s pronounced exactly the same as the Chinese word for ‘year’. ‘Gao’ means high or tall, so this dish symbolises the hope for rising performance in studies and careers this year.

For dinner, the table is loaded with signature dishes made by several family members and surrounded by multiple generations. Spring rolls are sometimes served as the starter, a food that welcomes the spring and whose crispiness symbolises a fresh start. Fish is commonly served, as its Chinese pronunciation is ‘yu’, which represents surplus and fortune. The blessing speech of the fish dish is:

May you and your family have surpluses and bountiful harvests every year.

Wontons or dumplings, which represent wealth, are also an essential dish - their shape symbolises the ancient Chinese gold ingot. Lucky coins are hidden in the dumplings and whoever finds one is blessed with good luck and wealth in the coming year.

Desserts usually include glutinous rice balls with sesame, peanut, or bean paste stuffing. The round shape of the rice balls is a symbol of family reunion and completeness. House soup, hot or cold-brewed tea, beer, and ‘baijiu’ (an alcoholic drink made from grain) are the typical drinks during meals.

Chinese New Year is the time when family and friends reunite to wish each other good health, happiness, and prosperity. There are uncountable gatherings, which means food, food, and more food - sometimes more than we can handle.

So try to use healthier cooking methods such as steaming, grilling, baking, boiling, and stewing. Make a salad with sashimi and use herbs and spices as seasoning instead of salt. And switch to whole grain, unpolished brown rice, which contains four times more fiber than white rice. It also contains more beneficial nutrients like iron, magnesium, and vitamin B.

I highly recommend trying a traditional Chinese New Year meal if you haven’t before. Here’s a recipe for a traditional Chinese New Year favourite, courtesy of my sister and the people at The Woks of Life.


  • 1kg Chinese radish (also known as Chinese turnip), grated
  • 60g veggie bacon bits, dried
  • 80g Chinese mushroom, soaked and chopped
  • 1 spring onion, chopped
  • 50g corn flour
  • 50g plain flour
  • 150g rice flour
  • cooking oil
  • salt, sugar, white pepper to taste


  1. Fry the mushroom for 5 minutes, then add the radish and cook for another 5 minutes.
  2. Add 450g of water, bring to simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Scoop out the cooked ingredients to cool. Collect the remaining liquid in a measuring jug, and add water until you have a total of 300ml liquid.
  4. Mix all the flour with half of the liquid and mix well, then add the rest of the liquid and mix again.
  5. Add the cooked ingredients and the veggie bacon bits into the batter and mix well. Add seasoning to taste, and allow to sit for 15 minutes.
  6. Pour the batter into a well-oiled dish that’s suitable for steaming.
  7. Place the dish into in a steamer and steam over medium-high heat for 60 minutes.
  8. Remove from the container and allow to cool.
  9. Cut the cake into slices and pan-fry the cakes on both sides until they’re golden and crispy.
  10. Serve with xo or chilli dipping sauce.

Happy Chinese New Year!

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My name is Phion, I am a first year postgraduate student in New and Renewable Energy at Durham University, and I claim to be an environmentalist, I am also a member of Grey College. I love traveling, eating, and playing all kinds of sports. I can speak English, Mandarin, and Cantonese fluently and practicing Spanish at the moment (struggling!).