Chinese New Year: Foods to help bring you good luck and health in the coming year

A big part of any holiday tradition is, of course, food and drink. When I think of parties, celebrations, reunions and other events tied to specific holidays, I can't help but also think of the foods on the table and the drinks overflowing in our glasses as we said "cheers," "santé," "l'chaim," "prost," and the like. That certainly holds true for New Year celebrations - on any calendar.  And, at the end of this month, families and friends will come together again to ring in the Chinese New Year - and say "gan bei" and "yam sing."

Chinese New Year is a 15 day-long holiday that begins on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar. The holiday, which starts Friday, January 31, is the longest one in the Chinese calendar. This year is the Year of the Horse.

As with most holidays, many of the foods on people's tables will be traditional ones, with many purposely eaten to help bring good luck and health in the coming year.

Raise your vegetables to toast your health and good fortune

Jenny Yang of Phoenix Bean

Jenny Yang of Phoenix Bean

To find out more about which foods to eat for good fortune and health in the New Year, I turned to Jenny Yang, owner of Phoenix Bean in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood. Yang took over the ownership of Chicago's oldest operating tofu factory in 2006 and, since that time, has continued to bring the company's line of tofu, soybean noodles, sprouts and soy milk to more and more people and markets across Chicago - and the nation.

Tops on Yang's list of foods to eat for the New Year are vegetables and, of course, tofu. According to Yang, vegetables are the ideal food to eat to achieve good heath because of their inherent health benefits. She also attributed their New Year popularity to the crunch sound heard when you eat them - a sound that's associated with money.

Yang also admitted that after indulging in the meat dishes traditionally served over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve in the United States, it's nice to eat something lighter, but still festive.

Celebrate your longevity with long noodles

Yang also plans to eat a lot of long noodles in the New Year. According to tradition, it's the length of the noodles that matter,

Selection of Phoenix Bean tofu products

Selection of Phoenix Bean tofu products

with the idea being that eating long noodles will help bring you longevity in the coming year.

One of the noodle-laden dishes Yang plans to serve is kim chi soybean noodle. The star of the dish will be the soybean noodles Yang and her team produce at their factory in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. She also plans to add an ample helping of a variety vegetables, including spicy kim chi, wood-ear mushrooms, crunchy mung bean sprouts (which Phoenix Bean grows in house), baby bok choy, carrots and cilantro (as garnish).

For Yang, the dish offer the perfect trifecta of Chinese New Year symbolism - money (from the vegetables), longevity (from the noodles) and good luck (from the red color given to the dish by the kim chi).

More ways to eat your way to a happy, healthy New Year

Looking for other dishes to eat for good health and fortune in the New Year? Yang suggests cooking up and enjoying the popular Buddhist Delight, a vegan dish chock full of vegetables, and vegetable jiaozi dumplings, which are typically wrapped in the shape of an ancient boat-shaped coin called yuanbao.

Other foods that are traditionally eaten due to their promised benefits for the coming year include long leafy greens like Chinese broccoli, long beans and whole fish with the head and tail on it. For dessert, people often eat nian gao, a cake whose name means higher year and represents the new heights you may aspire to in the new year.

But, it's not just about eating these foods. It also can be just as important to display the foods on your dining table. On some tables, you may see bowls of oranges and tangerines. The tradition is rooted in the name of the fruits, which sound like gold and luck, respectively.

Here's to a happy New Year - Gong Hei Fat Choi!

With the start of the holiday almost here, I wish you a good New Year (or Gong Hei Fat Choi) - and happy cooking, eating and drinking, too. May your celebrations be filled with much good luck and health, and many tasty delights.

If you're in Chicago, be sure to attend one of the many family-friendly Chinese New Year celebrations happening throughout the 15 day-long holiday.

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