The Chinese Lantern Festival, which is also called the Spring Lantern Festival, is a festival held on the last day of the traditional New Year’s celebrations. It takes place on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese calendar, which usually corresponds to February or early March in the Gregorian calendar. The Lantern Festival is an ancient tradition that dates back to at least the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 25 CE).
Given its age and cultural significance, it should not be a surprise that many traditions have grown up around the Lantern Festival, including specific foods.
The tangyuan or yuanxiao is a sticky rice ball that typically has a sweet filling like sesame paste, red bean paste, or peanut butter. They are generally served in round bowls, for the Chinese believe that the roundness of the bowls and the balls represent family togetherness. Eating these rice balls is thus believed to bring the family luck, happiness, and harmony in the new year.
The different names are due to regional differences: The rice balls are called tangyuan in southern China and yuanxiao in northern China. Tangyuan is made by wrapping rice flour dough around the desired filling and boiling it. In northern China, people typically make yuanxiao by rolling a filling into a ball and then rolling the ball into some rice flour. They will then usually fry the rice ball.
While the rice balls are the main traditional food associated with just the Lantern Festival, there are several other foods traditionally associated with the New Year and are thus likely to be eaten at the Lantern Festival. Like the rice balls, they represent different hopes for the New Year.
Fish, for example, represents prosperity, for the Chinese word for “fish” also sounds like the word for “surplus.” Certain fish are considered particularly auspicious. Popular fish eaten at New Year celebrations include catfish, Chinese mud carp, and Crucian carp. The fish is traditionally steamed.
Dumplings, which date back 1800 years, symbolize wealth. They are typically boat-shaped like Chinese silver ingots and are filled with different meats and vegetables. Dumplings are often eaten with radishes and cabbages, and the combination is believed to improve a diner’s mood and give them fair skin.
Spring rolls are actually named after the Spring Festival. Their cylindrical shape and yellow color make them look a bit like gold bars, so they symbolize wealth. They can be filled with vegetables, meat, or some sort of sweet.
Other traditional foods served during the New Year include longevity noodles, sticky rice cakes (niangao), and “good fortune” fruit. All of them have a symbolic meaning, a long history, or both. The different foods relate to the Chinese people’s wishes for a prosperous and successful New Year.