Symbolism in Chinese Food

  • Date Posted: 2011-08-18 14:46
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Symbolism is a very important part of Chinese people’s life. A lot of Chinese foods are also symbolic, especially during traditional festivals or other special occasions. Given the important role food plays in Chinese culture, it is not surprising that many foods have symbolic meaning. The symbolic significance of a food may be based on its appearance or on how the Chinese word for it sounds.

1st step  Eggs
Eggs hold a special symbolic significance in many cultures, and China is no exception. The Chinese believe eggs symbolize fertility. After a baby is born, parents may hold a "red egg and ginger party," where they pass out hard boiled eggs to announce the birth. (In some regions of China the number of eggs presented depends on the sex of the child: an even number for a girl, and an odd number if a boy has been born).

2nd step Noodles
Noodles are a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. They are as much a part of a Chinese birthday celebration as a birthday cake with lit candles is in many countries. Since noodles do symbolize long life, it is considered very unlucky to cut up a strand. 

3rd step  Fish
Although westerners sometimes balk at the sight of a entire fish lying on a plate, in China a fish served whole is a symbol of prosperity. In fact, at a banquet it is customary to serve the whole fish last, pointed toward the guest of honor. Fish also has symbolic significance because the Chinese word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for riches or abundance, and it is believed that eating fish will help your wishes come true in the year to come.

4th step Duck
If you are ever invited to a Chinese wedding banquet, don't be surprised to spot a mouthwatering platter of Peking duck on the banquet table. Ducks represent fidelity in Chinese culture. Also, red dishes are featured at weddings as red is the color of happiness. (You'll find them served at New Year's banquets for the same reason.)

5th step Chicken
In Chinese culture, chicken forms part of the symbolism of the dragon and phoenix. At a Chinese wedding, chicken's feet (sometimes referred to as phoenix feet) are often served with dragon foods such as lobster. Chicken is also popular at Chinese New Year, symbolizing a good marriage and the coming together of families (serving the bird whole emphasizes family unity).

6th step Seeds (lotus seeds, watermelon seeds, etc)
Visit an Asian bakery during the Chinese New Year, and you're likely to find a wide assortment of snacks with different types of seeds in them. The seed-filled treats represent bearing many children in Chinese culture.

7th step Fruit - Tangerines, Oranges and Pomelos
Tangerines and oranges are passed out freely during Chinese New Year as the words for tangerine and orange sound like luck and wealth, respectively. As for pomelos, this large ancestor of the grapefruit signifies abundance, as the Chinese word for pomelo sounds like the word for "to have."

8th step Cake
And what about the sweet, steamed cakes that are so popular during the Chinese New Year season? Cakes such as Sticky Rice Cake have symbolic significance on many levels. Their sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life, while the layers symbolize rising abundance for the coming year. Finally, the round shape signifies family reunion.

9th step Vegetables
Chinese garlic chives symbolize eternity, while cone-shaped winter bamboo shoots are a symbol of wealth.

Also, there are recipes featuring symbolic Chinese food in chinese traditional holiday:

For Chinese New Year:

Black moss seaweed - wealth
Dried Bean Curd - happiness
Chicken - happiness and marriage (especially when served with "dragon foods," such as lobster. Family reunion (if served whole)
Eggs - fertility
Egg Rolls - wealth
Fish served whole - prosperity
Lychee nuts - close family ties
Noodles - A long life
Oranges – wealth, luck
Chicken - part of the symbolism of the dragon and phoenix. At a Chinese wedding, chicken's feet (sometimes referred to as phoenix feet) are often served with dragon foods such as lobster. Chicken is also popular at Chinese New Year, symbolizing a good marriage and the coming together of families (serving the bird whole emphasizes family unity).
Peanuts - a long life
Peaches - peacefulness
Pomelo - abundance, prosperity, having children
Seeds (lotus, watermelon, etc.) - having a large number of children
Tangerines - luck

For a wedding:

Zao (Chinese date), peanut, guiyuan (longan) and sunflower seeds - having a “noble” (precious) son very soon
Eggs - fertility

Other occasions:

Snapper’s head or shell - welcome
Red Boiled Egg - for newborn baby


More food of symbolic meaning:

Abalone (sea snail; 鳆; fù) - definite good fortune

Apple (苹果; píngguǒ) - wisdom, peace

Apricot, dried (杏脯; xìngfǔ) - gold, wealth

Arrowhead (bot.: Sagittaria sagittifolia; 慈菇; cí gū) - benevolence

Arrowroot (bot.: Maranta arundinacea; 竹芋) - good life

Bamboo fungus (stinkhorn fungus; bot.: Phallus indusiatus; 竹笙, zhúshēng), also called bamboo pith (竹荪; zhúsūn) - meaning: long life

Bamboo shoots (竹笋尖; zhú sǔn jiān) - wealth (term sounds like "wishing that everything would be well" - xǔyuànchí), new start

Banana (香蕉; xiāngjiāo), on altar, offering - wish for education, brilliance at work/ school

Bean curd, dried/ tofu, dried (豆腐, dòu fǔ)- fulfillment of wealth and happiness (note: dried tofu is not of white colour)
Bean curd sticks (腐竹; fǔ zhú) - blessing the house

Bean sprouts (豆芽; dòu yá, literally "bean sprout/germ" 芽菜; yá cài, literally "sprout vegetable" or 银芽; yín yá, literally "silver sprouts") - 'to your heart's content', positive start into the new year

Black moss (hair moss, hair weed), fat choy (髮菜; fàcài; a black hair-like cyanobacteria) - wealth

Cabbage, Chinese (pak choy, 白菜) - 100 types of prosperity luck
Cabbage, stuffed packages - wealth (the shape symbolises an ingot)

Calms (scallops; 扇贝; shànbèi) - opening of new horizons
calm roll (干贝; gānbèi) - gold, wealth

Carrots (胡蘿蔔; hú luóbo; or 紅蘿蔔; hóng luóbo), red colour- good luck

Cashew nut (腰果, yāoguǒ)- gold, money (the nut's shape symbolises the gold bar of ancient times)

Chicken (whole) (鸡肉; jīròu) - prosperity, togetherness of the family, joy (note: chicken with its head, tail and feet symbolizes completeness)

Chinese garlic chives (韭菜, jiǔcài) - everlasting, eternity, long life

Coconut, nut (椰子; yēzi), flesh (椰肉; yēròu), juice/milk (椰汁; yēzhī) - promoting togetherness

Daylily buds, golden lily buds (金针; jīnzhēn; also called "golden needles") - wealth

Duck (鸭肉, yāròu) - fertility

Dumplings - dumplings exist in various kind, see: jiaozi dumplings, yuanxiao/ tangyuan/ tangtuan dumplings

Egg (蛋, dàn) - fertility
egg roll (蛋皮春卷, dàn pí chūn juǎn) - money, wealth, gold

Fa Gao (发糕; fāgāo) the steamed "Prosperity Cake"; the sound "fa" means either "to raise/generate" or "be prosperous"

Fish (whole) - The word 魚 (yú), meaning "fish", has the same pronunciation as the word 餘, which is "remain or surplus", 'having leftovers of money', an increase in prosperity
fish ball (鱼蛋; yúdàn) - reunion

Golden lilly buds, Daylily (bot.: Hemerocallis; 金针; jīnzhēn) - wealth

Gingko nuts ( 銀杏; yín xìng; or 白果, bái guǒ)- hope for silver, wealth (the nut's shape represents a silver yuanbao/ ingot)

Dried unbroken glass noodles symbolise long life.
Photo: © Valeska Gehrmann
Glass noodles, Chinese vermicelli, cellophane noodle, noodle threads (粉絲; fěn sī; also called "bean threads ", mung bean thread) - silver chain

Grapes (葡萄, pútaó) - wealth, abundance, fertility, many descendants, family harmony

Jiaozi- Dumplings (jiǎozi, 饺子) - wealth (the shape of the jiaozi dumplings is that of a yuanbao ingot, also the word jiǎozi shares the same pronunciation with 角子 (jiǎozi) that is a small jiao coin used in old times. Other meanings: togetherness, heavenly blessing

Jujube symbolise wealth, prosperity, as well as fertility
Photo: ©
  Jujube (kind of date, red colour; 枣; zǎo, candied jujube: 蜜枣; mìzǎo) - wealth, prosperity, fertility
Kumquat (金橘; jīn jú) - gold, hence fortune, wealth

Lettuce (生菜; shēngcài) - prosperity
lettuce roll, food being rolled into lettuce - having a child soon

Longan (龙眼) - many good son

Lotus seeds/ -nuts/ -beans (蓮子; lián zi) - a full wallet, many (male) offspring
lotus seeds,crystallized (蓮子糖; lián zi táng) - a full wallet, many (male) offspring

Lychee (荔枝; lìzhī) - close family ties

Maize (玉米; yùmǐ) - growth

Mandarin (瓯柑; ōugān) - gold, wealth

Meat ball (肉丸; ròuwán)- reunion

Melon (瓜; guā) - family unity
melon, candied - growth, good health

Mixed vegetable (什锦蔬菜; shíjǐn shūcài) - family harmony

Muer mushroom, Black fungus, Three ear fungus, Wood ear (木耳; mù ěr) - longevity

Noodles (面条; miàntiáo) uncut - long life

Onion (洋葱; yángcōng) - cleverness

Orange (柑橘; gānjú) - wealth, good fortune, gold

Oyster (牡蠣; mǔlì) - receptivity to good fortune, good business
Oyster, dried (ho xi) - all good things, good luck

Peach - immortality
Peach, pair of (桃; táo) - wealth, abundance, long healthy life, great fortune for many generations

Peanuts (花生; huāshēng) - health, long life, birth of prosperity, continuous growth, multiplication in wealth and good fortune, stability

Pineapple (凤梨; fènglí) - wealth, luck, excellent fortune, gambling luck

Pomegranate symbolises many offsprings
Photo: © Valeska Gehrmann
Pomegranate (石榴; shíliu) - many offsprings

Pomelo (柚子; yòuzi) - abundance, prosperity, having children, good health, family unity

Pork (猪肉; zhūròu) - strength, wealth, abundant blessing

Prawn (大虾; dàxiā) - liveliness

Pumpkin (南瓜; nánguā) - prosperity, abundance, descendant's luck, illustrious children, enchantment, fruit draws earth energy to manifest gold

Rice (米饭; mǐfàn) - fertility, luck, wealth, rice symbolizes a link between Heaven (Gods) and Earth (Men)
Nian gao, (Chinese: 年糕; pinyin: nián'gāo) Sticky (Rice) cake, Chinese new year's cake. It is considered good luck to eat nian gao because it has the symbolism of increasing prosperity every year. The New Year greeting 'Nian Nian Gao Sheng' (年年高升 niánnián gāoshēng) is to wish people "advance toward higher positions and prosperity step by step."
Sticky rice - cohering of family
Rice is one of the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty

Roseapple (Syzygium jambos; 蒲桃; pú táo) - calmness, peace of mind, no fighting

Seaweed, especially black moss, Fat Choy, (in Chinese: 髮菜; pinyin: fàcài; literal meaning: hair vegetable). The two syllables of Fat Choy in Cantonese sound the same as a Cantonese Chinese New Year greeting "Gung1 hei2 faat3 choi4" (恭喜发财) meaning "congratulations and be prosperous"; additional meanings: - good luck, exceeding wealth.

Seeds - lotus seeds, watermelon seeds, etc. - having a large number of children 籽 [zǐ]

Shitake mushrooms, since long a symbol of longevity in Asia, they also symbolise sizing opportunities
Photo: ©
Shitake, Black mushroom (冬菇; dōnggū) - longevity, sizing opportunities

Shrimp (小虾; xiǎoxiā) - happiness and good fortune

Slender Noodle (細粉; xì fě) - see glass noodle

Snowpeas (荷蘭豆; hélándòu) - unity

Spring roll (春卷; chūnjuǎn) - wealth (the shape represents a gold bar)

Sweet corn (甜玉米; tián yùmǐ) - growth, increase

Sweets, (糖食; tángshí, 糖果;tángguǒ) rice cake (年糕; nián'gāo) - safety, good fortune and 'sweeten' the new year

Tangerine (橘; jú) - luck

Tangtuan (湯團, tāngtuán,"round dumplings in soup"), sweet dumplings - togetherness, reunion

Tangyuan ( 湯圓 ,tāngyuán, "round balls in soup"), sweet dumplings - togetherness, reunion

Tofu, dried (豆腐干; dòufǔgān) - fulfillment of wealth and happiness, blessing the houses (note: dried tofu is not of white colour)

Tofu, fried (炸豆腐; zhá dòufǔ) - gold, hence wealth

Turnip cake (萝卜糕; luóbo gāo) - good omen

Vegetable, green (绿叶菜; lǜyècài) - close family ties
vegetable/ tofu (dried) - harmony, happiness and prosperity

Walnut (核桃仁; hétàorén) - happiness of the entire family

Water chestnut (荸薺; bíqí) - unity

Winter noodel (冬粉, dōng fěn) - see glass noodle

Yuanxiao, sweet dumpling (元宵; yuánxiāo) - togetherness, reunion

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