Food Is a Meaningful Centerpiece of Chinese New Year


TS-503640418 (1) Chinese NEW YEAR1

By Grace O

I’m looking forward to Chinese New Year, which begins on February 8. This year is the Year of the Monkey. People born in this year of the Chinese zodiac are characterized as quick-witted, curious, innovative and mischievous. They are clever and intelligent, especially when it comes to career and wealth. ‘Monkeys’ are lively, flexible, and versatile. It’s said that their gentleness and honesty brings them an everlasting love life. Does that sound like you or someone you know? Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Dickens, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, Alice Walker, Mick Jagger, and Eleanor Roosevelt were all born in Monkey years.

While we associate Western New Year’s with adult parties, drinking and football, Chinese New Year is all about gathering to enjoy lots of food. Chinese communities all over the world from London to Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines celebrate with family and friends. My staff is like family, so I celebrate with them at a Chinese New Year’s banquet on the first day. We’ll be gathering at a restaurant here in the San Gabriel Valley, which is the hub of the Asian community in Southern California. The meal always includes meat, whole fish, all kinds of vegetables and sweets. The pronunciation of the word ‘fish’ in Chinese is similar to the word for ‘surplus’ to symbolize that there will always be more than enough in the coming year. Tradition dictates that the fish must be served with the head and tail intact, so you have a good year start to finish.

Everything served at a Chinese New Year’s banquet has meaning. If you’re lucky enough to attend one, here’s what you’ll be sampling and what it means.


TS-498304762 Whole Chicken

Whole Chicken — Serving a chicken with it head, feet and tail represents completeness, prosperity, family togetherness and joy. Try my mother’s Steamed Ginger Chicken recipe below.

TS-504123068 Egg Rolls

Egg Roll and Spring Rolls – Because they are the shape and color of gold bars, they’re associated with money, wealth and gold.

TS-501130770 Jujubes

Jujubes – Represent wealth, prosperity and fertility. This date-like fruit contains a small amount of a number of different nutrients including magnesium, potassium, copper, niacin, calcium, manganese, phosphorus, and iron. Jujubes are high in vitamin C for strengthening the immune system and fighting infections.

TS-78813053 Chinese NY Citrus

Citrus Fruits — Figure prominently in Chinese New Year’s celebrations probably because they are at their juiciest, flavorful peak during the months of January and February and because of their red (lucky) to golden (wealth) colors. I’m fortunate to have many orange, grapefruit, lemon and tangerine trees on my farm in San Diego. I like to raid my groves and bring gifts of my home-grown citrus to friends during Chinese New Year. I always keep the leaves attached, as that symbolizes longevity. Plus, it looks so beautiful and fresh!

Mandarin –This is the name for a class of oranges with thin, loose peel. Mandarins represent gold and wealth because of their color. They are often given as gifts for the New Year, but never in fours, as that’s considered an unlucky number.

Oranges — Round items and foods are given as gifts because they represent the cyclical nature of the world and as an old year ends, another begins. Oranges are also associated with wealth, good fortune and gold.

Pomelo – A large, golden citrus fruit with white or pink flesh depending on the variety, pomelos are the forebear of grapefruit. They represent abundance, prosperity, having children, good health and family unity in the New Year. The Cantonese word for ‘pomelo’ sounds like the words ‘prosperity’ and ‘status.’

Tangerine — The Chinese word for ‘tangerine’ sounds like the word for ‘luck,’ so enjoying tangerines is lucky. Plus, at this time of year they are at their best.

Mixed Vegetables – A big platter of stir fried vegetables to share is the perfect metaphor for family harmony.

Noodles – No Chinese New Year’s banquet is complete without noodles of some sort— uncut rice or chow mein noodles mean long life.

Shrimp – For happiness and good fortune. Shrimp are a low-fat and low-calorie source of protein. A four-ounce serving supplies 23.7 grams of protein and only 112 calories with less than a gram of fat. Shrimp is a good source of vitamin D, which regulates the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, both essential for healthy teeth and bones.

Long Leafy Green Vegetables — These promote close family ties, according to Chinese tradition. Try whole baby bok choy, kale or spinach. Greens provide fiber, help lower cholesterol and are full of vitamins like K for cardiovascular health. They contain B vitamins that help convert carbs into glucose that the body can use as fuel. Bitter greens like mustard greens contain a good amount of calcium.

One of my favorite traditions at Chinese New Year is giving gifts. I follow the custom by giving friends, family and associates a token amount of money in a special red envelope decorated with gold to wish them good health and fortune for the New Year. Most people never open them, as the envelopes are as lucky as the money in them and too pretty to tear open. Along with an abundance of delicious, symbolic foods shared with people we care about, Chinese New Year is the opportunity to reflect on the past, look forward to the future, while enjoying the present.


Whole boiled chicken

Serves 4-6


4-5 lbs. whole chicken
2 -3 Tbs. rock salt
4 Tbs. sesame oil
1/4 cup Chinese cooking white wine or Mirin
1/2 cup finely cut strips of fresh ginger
1/4 cup sliced scallions


  1. Rinse the chicken inside and out with cold water. Pat dry.
  2. Rub the rock salt inside the cavity and in betweenchicken skin and meat
  3. Whisk together the Chinese white wine or Mirin, 2 Tbsp. sesame oil; add ¼ cup of fresh ginger strips and scallions.
  4. Pour half the mixture inside the cavity and half outside.
  5. Place chicken on an aluminum or glass platter.Using an aluminum Chinese steamer, steam on the stovetop over medium heat for 1 hour.
  6. If a Chinese steamer is not available, place chicken in a Pyrex dish, cover tightly with foil and place the dish in a, rimmed aluminum pan filled half way with warm water to create a bain marie. Bake in a 350˚ oven for 1 ½ hours. Add more water if necessary during baking.
  7. Using a meat thermometer, make certain the thigh meat reaches a temperature of 165˚. Then remove chicken from stovetop or oven. Let the chicken cool at room temperature. Place in refrigerator for 8 hours and cut into serving pieces.
  8. Serve with remaining slices of fresh ginger tossed with remaining sesame oil.


About Grace O

Grace O has been cooking and baking professionally and recreationally all of her adult life. As a child in Southeast Asia, she learned the culinary arts by her mother’s side in her family’s cooking school. She became so well versed in hospitality and the culinary arts, she eventually took over the cooking school and opened three restaurants. She is widely credited with popularizing shrimp on sugar-cane skewers and being one of the first culinarians to make tapas a global trend. She has cooked for ruling families and royalty. Grace O’s move to America precipitated a career in healthcare, inspired by her father, who was a physician. Twenty years and much hard work later, she operates skilled nursing facilities in California. Grace O strives to create flavorful food using the finest ingredients that ultimately lead to good health. Her recipes, although low in saturated fat, salt, and sugar, are high in flavor. Grace employs spices from all over the world to enliven her dishes, creating food that is different and delicious. She believes that food can be just as effective at fighting aging as the most expensive skin creams. And since she’s over 50 herself, she’s living proof of that.
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