How to Celebrate Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year is a huge annual celebration filled with traditions and rituals intended to gather and preserve good luck for the year ahead. Ingredients, recipes, colours, and numbers all hold a significance. We ask Amy Poon, founder of Poon's London and daughter of renowned Chinese chef-restaurateur Bill Poon, about the festival and the family traditions she treasures.

When is Chinese New Year 2020?

The Chinese calendar is lunar, so the date for Chinese New Year changes each year. Chinese New Year 2020 falls on Saturday 25 January. The main celebration meal happens the night before, and is called the reunion dinner.

What is the animal of Chinese New Year 2020?

2020 is the year of the metal rat. There is a 12 year cycle of animals, and the rat comes first. People born in the year of the rat are believed to be spirited, alert, versatile and witty.


Amy Poon, founder of Poons talks about Chinese New Year

My memories of Chinese New Year are possibly a little different to many other people’s...

My parents had their restaurant in Covent Garden and each year we threw a huge street party for Chinese New Year. It was spectacular.

They closed the whole road, and erected three scaffolding bridges along King Street. Lion dancers would process from the end of the street accompanied by symbols and drums.

They’d climb onto a platform outside the restaurant and eat oranges and Chinese cabbage leaves. Oranges are an age-old symbol of luck in China, and the word for Chinese cabbage sounds like the word for prosperity.

Chinese New Year red envelopes

Chinese red envelopes are traditionally given from the older generation to young people  – and you’re considered young until you’re married.

They’re filled with money, and must never include the number four, because four sounds like ‘death’ in Chinese. Eight and nine are lucky numbers, so you might give an amount like 28 or 19… but never 44. And they should really be new notes, as Chinese New Year is all about new, fresh things.

You’re supposed to receive them with two hands and wish your giver a happy new year, saying 'Kung Hei Fat Choi' in Cantonese or 'Xin Nian Kuai Le' in Mandarin.

Chinese New Year Food Ideas

Nian Goa Sticky Chinese New Year Cakes

The traditional Chinese New Year cake, nian gao.

We always have nian gao cake. The theory is that a mythical creature called the nian terrorised everyone at the end of winter as it was hungry, and it particularly liked eating children. Villagers fed the beast so it wouldn’t eat their children.

And some people say the sticky cakes glued the nian’s teeth together to stop it eating children. One day a child wearing red scared the nian away – so wearing red, letting off fire crackers and holding red lanterns all come from that story.

Nian goa cakes also sounds a little like ‘tall, or big year’ so it has this idea that each year gets better than the one before. There’s a lot of linguistic play in Chinese. 

Is there a traditional menu for the main reunion meal?

Not quite in the same way as a Christmas turkey. But there are some foods we always have. A Chinese banquet always ends with noodles, as they signify longevity. And you must never cut noodles.

We also often serve a kind of ‘hair vegetable’ called fat choy. It sounds like the phrase to make a lot of money. Chinese New Year is a winter festival so there are lots of wintry dishes like braised yam, and duck. And a whole fish is often served, because the word for fish, yu, sounds like the word for abundance, so that’s very auspicious. 

Many families make a Chinese steamboat or hot pot meal, in the middle of the table. It’s a lovely inclusive, interactive and communal way to eat. And it’s not difficult to cook, you just need to prep in advance.

You can marinade prawns, chicken, beef, tofu, or whatever you prefer in soya sauce, sesame oil and wine with a little potato starch. This makes it much more forgiving when you boil the meat, and adds extra flavour. Or go for fresh scallops for something more luxurious.

Chinese Steamboat or Hot Pot meal for Chinese New Year

The Poon family favourites at New Year

My father cooks what he feels like, there’s such a repertoire of dishes to choose from. He slightly makes it up depending on his mood.

Last year we had lobster, along with braised abalone, fish maw and mushrooms. He also served roasted chicken livers marinated in rose wine, and ma’s magic soup. And he often makes a beautiful boned duck, which is stuffed with lotus nuts, glutinous rice, and mushrooms.

These special, expensive ingredients all signify good times. That’s the thing about reunion dinner, is it’s a very abundant meal!

Regional differences in Chinese New Year food

You’ll find lots of dumplings in the north. And friends of mine from Beijing will have big dumpling parties. There are a thousand and one different types of dumplings – in the north you see a lot of boiled dumplings with thick skins, where as in the south you’ll find dumplings such as wontons which are much more delicate.

In contrast to Italy, China uses a lot of wheat in the north so you will find noodles and other flour-based products, whereas in Italy you find rice. The staple food in southern China is rice, whereas in Italy you find more wheat-based products in the south. 

Other Chinese New Year traditions

  • You must never sweep or clean on Chinese New Year, as you’ll sweep away all the luck. Some take it a step further and open all the doors and windows at midnight to let out last year’s bad luck before the new year starts.
  • Traditionally you’d wear red, and some people wear entirely new clothes on New Year – new underwear, new socks, everything!
  • You must never cut your hair in the New Year period as you’re severing ties, and New Year is all about forming bonds. It’s all about family and coming together, everyone in China travels home for Chinese New Year – it’s a huge migration as people get together to celebrate.

For more Chinese New Year inspiration, see our guide to a Chinese New Year feast here, or read the tips for hosting a Chinese New Year party from the team at Chinese Laundry. Take a look at our Chinese ingredients and products to get your celebration under way.



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