Locals enjoy a poon choi feast in Hong Kong.

8 unique dishes eaten during Chinese New Year

Jan 22, 2020

Each region of China has its own way of celebrating Lunar New Year. From spicy sausages to pots full of meat, these are some unique New Year’s dishes you might find across the country.

In Chinese communities around the world, Lunar New Year, which falls on Jan. 25 this year, is a time for families to gather and celebrate with feasts that would give Thanksgiving a run for its money.

A Lunar New Year banquet in Chongqing, China.
A Lunar New Year banquet in Chongqing, China. / Photo: Xinhua

No matter where you go in China, you’ll often find a motley spread of dishes ranging from whole fish and dumplings to rice cakes. Many of these dishes are symbolic—for example, dumplings are eaten because they resemble gold ingots—and can be found all over the country.

But China is massive and each region also has its own unique way of celebrating the new year. Here are some eccentric new year’s dishes you might find across China.


Deep-fried dough balls in Gansu 

The landlocked province of Gansu in northern China is known for its wheat dishes, and during Lunar New Year, deep-fried dough balls, or youguozi 油果子, are popular because their circular shape is thought to symbolize family unity.

But youguozi is not the only fried dough dish on Gansu dinner tables during New Year’s. Sanzi 馓子—deep-fried noodles—also make an appearance.


Lamb roasts in Inner Mongolia

Inner Mongolia sees subzero temperatures during this time of year, and to keep warm, some families will make a big fire and roast a whole lamb on a spit.

Naturally, it’s become part of the New Year’s tradition here.

(Read more: The last restaurant in Beijing where you can roast a lamb leg on the street)

Lamb is plentiful in this part of the country, where vast grasslands make for an ideal environment to raise sheep. The meat is seasoned with generous heaps of cumin and chili.


Pig stew in northeast China

Stew is popular during the frigid winters of northeastern China, and for Lunar New Year, the dish of choice is a stew called shazhucai 杀猪菜.

It’s a hodgepodge of sausage, pork belly, blood sausage, sauerkraut, and vermicelli all thrown into one pot.


‘Vegetable basins’ in Hong Kong

If northeastern China has shazhucai 杀猪菜, then southern China’s answer to the plentiful feat is poon choi 盆菜, literally “vegetable basins.”

The concept is similar. At least eight different ingredients—usually chicken, pork, prawns, and mushrooms—are artfully layered in a giant pot that’s shared among a group of people.

The tradition is particular to Hong Kong and originates from the city’s walled villages. Legend has it that villagers during the late Song Dynasty (960-1279) wanted to host the emperor but didn’t have any proper dinnerware, so they arranged ingredients in large wooden basins.

(Read more: Life inside the walled villages of Shenzhen)

Regardless of its actual origins, the dish is now recognized as a bona fide New Year’s staple in Hong Kong, with restaurants even offering poon choi delivery during the busy holiday season.


Suckling pig in Guangdong

Guangdong Province, the home of Cantonese food, is known for its succulent and saccharine barbecue. And the king of all barbecue is a roast suckling pig, usually brought out for special occasions like business openings, family milestones, and of course, Lunar New Year.

A whole suckling pig is roasted until the skin is crisp and the meat is tender. The piglet is served spread-eagle across a platter, sometimes with red cherries in the eye sockets.

(Read more: A (very) comprehensive illustrated guide to Cantonese barbecue)

The dish, known in Cantonese as siu yu ju, is a sign of prosperity, since not every family could afford a whole pig back in the day. The meat is often served with fluffy wheat pancakes, with a bit of hoisin sauce and scallions to pair.


Spicy sausage in Sichuan

Sichuan cuisine is known for its mouth-numbingly spicy kick—thanks to the powerful zest of Sichuan peppercorns—and Lunar New Year feasts are no exception.

(Read more: Why is Sichuan food so spicy?)

Spicy sausage is the mainstay of the festival table. In bygone days, families would congregate and pack the sausages themselves with salt, ground chili, and peppercorns.

They’re then either air-dried or slowly smoked over cypress branches.


Rice cakes in Yunnan

Rice cakes are known as niangao 年糕 in Chinese, and it sounds like the phrase niannian gaosheng 年年高升, which means “increasing prosperity year after year.” That’s why it’s a popular dish during Lunar New Year.

Yunnan’s version of a rice cake is called erkuai 饵块, which is a thin ear-shaped rice cake that’s either grilled or stir-fried with meat, vegetables, and a heaping of spices.

(Read more: 5 dishes in Yunnan to challenge your assumptions about Chinese food)

While erkuai is now consumed year-round, it used to be a snack that was exclusive to the new year and made at a public mill shared by nearby residents.


Glutinous rice balls in Shanghai

Shanghai is by no means the only place that serves tangyuan 汤圆, or glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet paste. The dessert is a New Year’s treat in most of southern China. 

But the regional varieties from Shanghai and nearby Ningbo are the most famous. These sweet sticky rice balls are stuffed with sesame paste and served in soup topped with fermented rice wine.

Like the deep-fried dough balls of Gansu, tangyuan is eaten during Lunar New Year because the balls’ circular shape represents family unity.

Chinese New Year