Lunar New Year
and Martin Yan's Feasts
by Kate Heyhoe
The Kitchen God burns bright, rising on his paper steed through the smoke into the heavens. Firecrackers pop, dragons roar, and children dance. Families feast on Golden Lion Heads, pommelos, and kumquats. For the next few days, Asian communities welcome the Lunar New Year with feasts, reunions, colorful celebrations and the most important festival of the year, the Lantern Festival.
I first became acquainted with these New Year customs through Martin Yan. Most people know Martin as the affable, wok-slinging, cleaver-wielding chef of television's Yan Can Cook series. Despite his light-hearted image as a clever Chinese punster, he's one of the culinary community's most scholarly chefs, and his serious attention to the details of Asian cultures and cuisines is revealed in his most recent books, Martin Yan's Feast and Martin Yan's Asia. Martin taught me how different foods—minced vegetables, the cupping of foods in lettuce leaves, and the presentation of oranges and tangerines—are used to suggest wealth and prosperity in the New Year.
Fun Facts on Lunar New Year
- Occidentals are advised that the politically correct term is now "Lunar New Year," as opposed to "Chinese New Year" since many Asian cultures other than China's observe the lunar calendar. Of course, if you are specifically referring to the New Year in China, then Chinese New Year is perfectly acceptable.
- The Vietnamese observe the Lunar New Year and the arrival of spring with the festival of Tet Nguyen Dan, or simply Tet. In Korea, rural areas celebrate Tongshin-je, a welcoming of the new year with shaman rituals emphasizing fertility.
- The New Year varies from year to year because the lunar cycle is about 29.5 days. Every seven years an extra month is added so that the lunar and solar calendars coincide, rather like our custom of adding an extra day during leap years.
- The Chinese celebrate the new year over a 15-day period, while the Vietnamese observe it for 7 days, each of which culminates in a firecracker-popping, dragon dancing festival. Both cultures emphasize family (living and dead), friends, and starting the year out right—how one begins the year predicts the way the rest of the year will be. This means meticulous cleaning and in some cases painting their houses before the start of the new year, donning new clothes, and avoiding arguments, foul language and unlucky words. Clearing old debts and visits with family are valued practices of both China and Vietnam.
- To cry on New Year's Day is to cry all year long, so children are indulged and never spanked. Elders and relatives give children red envelopes with money for good fortune.
- The old year and its spirits are banished by sweeping the floors before New Year's Day. (Don't sweep on New Year's Day itself—you'll sweep away the new year if you do.) Shooting fireworks on New Year's Eve scares away the old year, and households open up windows and doors at midnight as exits for the old year.
- The Chinese and Vietnamese pay tribute to the Kitchen God at the end of a lunar year. The Kitchen God's mission is to inform the chief spirits of a family's behavior over the past year. A household burns a paper image of the Kitchen God, so that he may ascend to the Jade Emperor in the heavens. The Chinese include a paper horse to lift him on his journey, while the Vietnamese prefer a carp fish. Some families smear the lips of the Kitchen God with honey or sweet glutinous rice, to ensure he says sweet things about them.
- At New Year, special emphasis is placed on the symbology of different foods. Certain ones represent gold, or wealth, while others suggest wishes for good health, longevity, togetherness, and completeness. Citrus, like oranges and tangerines, resemble gold and represent abundant happiness and wealth, and you should bring a bag of fruit when calling on family or friends during new years. A whole fish is served to symbolize togetherness, chickens bring prosperity, noodles are served long and uncut, to represent long life. Lotus seeds are believed to bring many children, especially male children. Interestingly, the Chinese avoid serving fresh tofu, as its white color is deemed to symbolize death and misfortune.
- Every second day of the second month of the Chinese Lunar Year, in most parts of northern China, people will cut their hair. In Chinese folklore, this particular day, the God of Dragons who is responsible for the rain will raise his head and bring spring rain to the earth. On this day, people in China not only go to the barber, but they also eat noodles or popcorn.
- The seemingly unlimited selection and number of foods prepared during New Year represents the abundance of wealth for the family. Some Chinese avoid eating meat on the first day of the new year, to ensure long life, and by the time the 13th day rolls around, the Chinese have eaten so many rich foods, that simple meals of rice and vegetables are encouraged to cleanse the system—before embarking on yet another grand feast on the 15th day's Lantern Festival.
Martin Yan's Asia
Martin Yan's Feast
Martin Yan Interview (1996)
Lunar New Year Handbook
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
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This page modified January 2007