An interesting report from the BBC today on symbolism and food, not just in China but Scotland as well:
Dishes eaten at Chinese New Year carry great significance, as does the way a Burns Night supper is presented. But these are not the only meals which represent something to diners and the reasons we attach meaning are as myriad as the food itself.
It seems odd that a small parcel of tasty filling encased in a light dough wrapper can represent so much.
But the jiaozi dumpling symbolises prosperity to diners, who traditionally sit down for a family feast on the eve of Chinese New Year. It also means wealth when the dumpling is crescent shaped, like the gold ingot once used in ancient China as money.
Chinese chef Ching-He Huang says the centuries-old “lucky” food traditions come from superstitions about feeding the spiritual world, legends and history.
“For example, the bamboo glutinous rice, zongzi, was eaten to commemorate a famed poet. These rice dumplings were thrown in a river so the fish would feed on the rice instead of his corpse, because he threw himself into the river and he was a well-loved poet and patriot of the people,” she says.
Fuchsia Dunlop, BBC journalist and author of the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, says many of the meanings given to Chinese food are homophones of their names in Mandarin.
“In the Chinese language, so many different characters have the same sound and it is ripe for word play. For instance nian gao – which is a new year’s cake – also means tall or high, so it is eaten to represent doing better or reaching higher every year,” she says.
Steamed fish, which is a staple of many suppers, is served as a dish called nian nian you yu, the word for fish “yu”, being a homophone of “surplus” and “abundance”. It must be whole to symbolise completeness and good fortune.
Noodles represent a long life and autumn moon cakes are eaten to celebrate the roundness of the moon. Oranges are thought to symbolise wealth and tangerines good luck.
Read more over at the BBC site where there’s also a video