Many of the meanings given to Chinese food are homophones of their names in Mandarin.
Whether it is based on the appearance of the food (deep-fried spring rolls resemble gold bars and fried wontons, gold ingots) or the sound of a food in Chinese (lettuce sounds like rising fortune), you’d better know your stuff before putting something down on the table!
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.
She explains, “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.”
Here is more symbolism to chew on…
Eggs – In Malaysia, many of us are familiar with the handing out of red hard-boiled eggs to commemorate a baby’s ‘full moon’ – the happy consequence of a couple’s fertility. In some regions in China, an even number of eggs would symbolise a girl while an odd number, a boy.
Seeds – these literally hold the promise of life deep within, hence their association with fertility. This applies to all kinds of seeds whether lotus, watermelon or pumpkin. Lotus seeds in particular are a symbol of Immaculate Conception and purity while melon seeds represent family unity.
Noodles – Malaysians of all cultures love their noodles but probably not for the reasons the Chinese intended. In Chinese culture, noodles symbolise longevity and is therefore best eaten in one long strand. Cutting-up the strands is considered unlucky. At birthdays, it symbolises many more years to come and at weddings, a long marriage.
Fish – The word for fish in Chinese is yu, which sounds like the word for riches or abundance. As such, it is ‘a must’ to serve an entire fish at auspicious occasions with head and tail intact. The head is usually pointed towards the guest of honour and symbolises riches from the start of the year (fish head) to the very end (fish tail).
Duck – We may not all fancy duck but we’ve certainly heard about the famous Peking Duck. It was served in the imperial courts of the Ming Dynasty over 600 years ago as it represented fidelity. The burnished red of the roasted duck skin is also symbolic as red is often associated with happiness.
Chicken – This animal forms one part of the dragon-phoenix symbolism, two important elements in Chinese culture. While some of us may balk at the sight of chicken feet perched on a bed of noodles, to the Chinese, this represents the feet of the phoenix, a symbol of high virtue, grace, good luck and beauty. At weddings, a chicken dish represents a long, happy marriage and at family gatherings, serving a whole bird symbolises family unity.
Luck & Wealth
Oranges/Tangerines – a ‘must have’ during Chinese New Year, the words for oranges and tangerine sound like wealth and luck respectively. Pomelos, a large ancestor of the grapefruit, symbolises abundance.
Rich, sweet life
Steamed cakes – go on, satisfy your sweet tooth! Sticky Rice Cake is hugely popular because its sweetness symbolises a rich, sweet life while its round shape represents family unity.