Fish has a cultural relevance in many different cultural celebrations around the world. In China, eating fish during the Lunar New Year is an important specialty. The Lunar New Year occurs on the first day of the Lunar calendar and the next new year will occur on February 12th, 2021. Eating fish is considered good luck since the Chinese word for “fish” (鱼 Yú /yoo) sounds like the word for “extra” (余 Yú /yoo). It is good fortune to have extra at the end of the year as this means you are taking this surplus into the following year. It is also thought that consuming fish will allow you to have “extra” prospects such as wealth, health, love and family, in the next year.
Whole steamed fish is the most iconic dish in the Lunar New Year celebrations. The particular fish chosen for the meal is based on favourable homophonics. An example of a fish that is commonly eaten during the Lunar New Year would be the Siluriformes, more commonly known as the Catfish. The Chinese word for “Catfish” (鲶鱼 niányú /nyen-yoo) sounds like 年余 (nián yú) which means “year surplus.”
During dinner, the fish head is used to show respect to distinguished guests or the elders in the celebration. This is accomplished by pointing the fish head to the most distinguished guest. To start the meal, this chosen person must eat first before the others. While everyone enjoys the rest of dinner, the placement of the fish should not be moved. The guest who sits in front of the fish tail drinks along with the person in front of the fish head. Doing so brings more good fortune to everyone at the table.
The fish should be the last dish left in the entire meal. In different parts of China, how the fish gets treated after the meal differs. North of the Yangtze River, part of the fish gets left over after the dinner as this also contributes to the “surplus” into the new year. South of the river, the fish head and tail must not be eaten until the beginning of the new year. This tradition represents the hope for “extra” in the beginning and end of the new year.
The Lunar New Year dinner is one of merriment and laughter and fish has a huge impact on bringing luck to this holiday and into the new year.