The Chinese New Year takes playing with food to a whole new level, and paronomasia is the name of the game. Sound—namely homophones, words that sound alike but have different meanings—determines many of the ritual foods that make the Chinese feast, not taste. For example: “fish” (yu ?), also sounds like “surplus” (yu ?) in Cantonese and Mandarin. Eating fish at the start of the year therefore symbolizes abundance to come.
“This kind of wordplay exists in other languages, but as far as I’m aware, not to the extent of Chinese,” says Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford University professor and author of The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. “The Chinese have this pattern not just in food, but in other customs, and there is also a long history of puns in Chinese art.”
Why so many puns? The reason may partly lie in the language itself—Chinese is a tonal language with many monosyllabic words, especially the Cantonese dialect. “The reason it is so easy to pun in Chinese languages is that there are so few syllables available,” writes Victor Mair, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, in an email to Yahoo. “Consequently, people have developed a natural affinity for punning and become very good at. It is part of the culture.”
Despite the age-old tradition, not everyone’s a fan: In fact, the Chinese government cracked down on the beloved punning practice in 2014 for fear of “cultural and linguistic chaos.” Given how entrenched the practice is in New Year celebrations, though, they may have to eat their words. Click through the slideshow for 10 traditional Lunar New Year’s eats that taste as good as they sound.
Fish & Surplus
“The most ubiquitous New Year’s pun is this: yú (“fish”) = yú (“surplus”),” writes Victor Mair, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, in an email to Yahoo. Naturally, including a dish of plenty for the celebration portends good luck. “Eating fish will help you have more than enough during the coming year.”
Oranges & Good Fortune
Enter a Chinese household bedecked with New Year’s decorations, and you’ll invariably find bowls of Mandarin oranges (chang-gwo). Native to China, the fruit is the go-to gift when visiting friends, family, or colleagues during this time of year. Chang-gwo sounds like chéng-guô (橙果 = 成果), which means “produce results,” so bringing oranges or having piles of them is a symbol of abundance and good fortune.
Rice Cakes & Riches
The sweet, copper-colored rice flour cake nian go (年糕) sounds like the word niángāo (年高), which means “year higher” or “year ascends.” The Chinese interpret that as either getting richer every year or taller every year. (Teenage boys in search of growth spurts are keen on the latter interpretation.) The main ingredients for this steamed cake are sweet rice flour, brown sugar, almond extract, red dates, and sometimes sesame seeds.
Kumquats & Luck
The homonym and the homophone are at work with the tiny kumquat. Gum-gwat translates into “gold orange,” but it also contains the character for “lucky.” Here’s a twist: After the kumquat made its way into Europe in the 19th century, it was bestowed a new botanical name after the man who brought the fruit to the new continent, Robert Fortunel. The botanical namesake: fortunella.
Dumplings & Transitions
Some claim that the word jiaozi (dumplings) sounds similar to go-chi (告辭) or “to take one’s leave,” and they stretch that to symbolize “bidding farewell to the old and ushering in the new.” That could just be an excuse for a midnight dumpling party: Families gather ’round to make some tasty savories, then they eat them right around midnight, as the old year gives way to the new.
Lotus & Fertility
If you break down the word for lotus seed, lianzi, you get “lian,” which means “successive” and “zi,” which means “seed.” “Zi” can also be the word for “children.” Many Chinese interpret that as meaning “children, one after another,” and eat lotus to boost fertility. Sliced and sugared lotus root and lotus seeds often make the New Year candy tray, which also includes coconut strips, red melon seeds, water chestnuts, and black melon seeds.
Turnips & Good Omens
Familiar to dim sum diners and more common in southern Chinese cooking, the turnip cake also turns up on the New Year’s table. Turnip is a radish (tsai tou 菜頭), which also sounds tsai tou (財投), the word for “good omen.”
Pomelos & Abundance
The giant pomelo (yaau) sounds just like the Chinese word for “to have,” another allusion to abundance and prosperity. The fruit’s round and hefty size also symbolizes family unity, and the color yellow connotes gold.
Dried Oysters & Good Business
“Dried oyster” (ho see) is similar to the Chinese word for “good business” or “happy events.” For the New Year, people braise it and pair it with something called hair seaweed. See the next slide for more on that.
Seaweed & Prosperity
“Gung Hay Fat Choy” is an oft-used New Year’s greeting, which roughly translates to “congratulations and be prosperous.” While fat choy (發財) means “prosperity” here, fat choy (髮菜) is also a type of algae known as hair seaweed or black moss. Paired with dried oysters (ho si 蠔豉), they make up a dish that combined sounds like the word for “wealth and good business.”