Happy Chinese New Year!

By Carmen Schmidt |

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There are plenty of reasons to go out for a meal with friends and family. But, just in case you need one... Happy Chinese New Year! Many holidays are celebrated with a special meal, and Chinese New Year is no exception. We have featured plenty of wonderful Asian cuisine restaurants on Check, Please! so there's bound to be one where you can enjoy a traditional Chinese New Year meal with family and friends. Explore the directory of restaurants recommended by our guest reviewers on this site.

Chinese New Year is rich with customs and tradition. It is celebrated according to the lunar calendar and each year is symbolized by one of the twelve Chinese Zodiac Animal Signs. This year the official start of Chinese New Year, according to our current moon cycle, began on February 14, 2010. But, not to worry, you haven't missed the best part. The celebration of the New Year lasts for approximately two weeks, with most people enjoying their New Year's feast on the last day, or this Sunday, February 28. 2010 is the year of the Tiger. The Chinese have traditionally believed that the Animal Sign for the year of your birth is a primary factor in determining your personality traits, physical and mental attributes, and the degree of success and happiness in your will find in your lifetime.

Like many holidays and traditions, Chinese New Year includes a celebratory feast that is full of symbolism. There are several foods that are considered lucky and always eaten during the New Year celebration. Many restaurants may also offer a special menu for Chinese New Year, or you could ask your server to suggest some dishes. If you want to make this a prosperous new year and bring fortune to your family and friends, I've put together some fun menu ideas and their corresponding symbolism for you to consider.

Some foods are considered lucky by the Chinese because of their appearance. For example, consider ordering spring rolls. Their shape is long like a gold bar, so the Chinese consider this lucky food to symbolize wealth. Ordering or serving a whole chicken symbolizes family togetherness. You may consider ordering a dish that contains long noodles, but never cut your noodles as you eat them. The length of the noodle symbolizes a long life, so you don't want to cut that short! Wind them carefully on your chopsticks or fork.

In the Chinese culture, some foods are considered lucky because the sounds of the words that describe them in Chinese are similar to words of fortune. For example, tangerines and oranges are served often as part of the festivities because their Chinese words sound like luck and wealth. The Cantonese word for lettuce sounds like rising wealth, so you may want to order a lettuce wrap that is filled with other traditionally lucky foods. Fish also plays a large role in festive celebrations. The word for fish, "Yu," sounds like the words both for wish and abundance. As a result, on New Year's Eve, it is customary to serve a fish at the end of the evening meal, symbolizing a wish for abundance in the coming year. For added symbolism, the fish is served whole, with head and tail attached, symbolizing a good beginning and ending for the coming year.

Since I'm a big fan of dessert, make sure to leave room for some lucky Sticky Rice Cakes. Cakes such as Sticky Rice Cake have symbolic significance on many levels. Their sweetness foretells a rich, sweet life, while the layers symbolize rising abundance for the coming year. Also, their round shape signifies family reunion. And, of course, have a fortune cookie. Fortune cookies are served on a plate, and you have to select your own because it is believed that you should choose your own fortune.

Don't forget, you can always order Chinese take-out and have your own little New Year's celebration at home! Happy eating!

Carmen M. Schmidt
Associate Producer, Check, Please!
WTTW