SPRING FESTIVAL Q & A with Chef Ilona Daniel

Your Chinese New Year food questions answered


What region’s food is most widely associated with Spring Festival?

Chinese New Year is a festival with many deeply symbolic dishes. There are slight variations in different regions, but there is a core set of dishes, which most Chinese enjoy as they celebrate. Dumplings, “jiaozi”, are considered a more northerly dish while Tang Yuan is said to have its origins in southern China. In Canton, oysters are a traditional dish, while in Shanghai, danijao, an egg skin dumpling, is an essential part of the festival as it resembles golden ingots, which were used in Ancient China as currency. My Chinese friends told me that while some dishes have their origins in certain parts of China, many have been adopted in other areas.

Is food a central theme throughout the Spring Festival celebrations?

In China, food is a central theme to everyday life, and even more so during Spring Festival! While I was teaching and travelling around China, I came to learn that the Chinese are always thinking about what they want to eat next. Foods of many textures, flavours, and colours eaten while walking to a restaurant for a complete dinner is a common occurrence. I marveled at the sheer quantity my friends and guides were able to put back. Eating is serious business in China, and probably my favourite part in travelling throughout the ancient land.

What is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve?

The biggest part of New Year’s Eve for many of my mainland Chinese friends is the gathering of family to sit together to make dumplings, and to share stories with one another.

Steamed fish is also a popular dish eaten on NYE. Many Chinese enjoy eating dishes whose names have a play on words, a device utilized extensively throughout the festival. Whole steamed fish, “yu”, sounds like the word meaning “surplus or abundance”, and therefore is an ideal food choice for the start of a new lunar year.

What’s your absolute favourite food (to make, to eat) associated with the holiday?

Dumplings are a golden standard, as are lion’s head meatballs. Lion’s head meatballs are twice-cooked pork meatballs, bathed in a sweet soy glaze served with a quartered baby bok choy. When quartered, the baby bok choy is said to resemble a lion’s mane. In Chinese culture, the lion is a symbolic figure. Lions are guardian animals, and they scare away evil spirits, and bring good luck to those in their presence.

Longevity Noodles are a particularly beloved dish eaten during the festival. Long noodles slurped without chewing are a good luck tradition. Noodle dishes of many varieties are eaten during the festival. One of my all-time favourite noodle dishes is Nanchang Noodles. This noodle dish is simple, affordable, and easy to prepare.

About Ilona Daniel

Ilona is a chef, culinary consultant, and accomplished food writer.

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