Eating History: Chinese New Year Food Traditions

Plus, check out some vintage images of Manhattan's Chinatown, from the days before Whole Foods started selling oyster sauce.

  • Chinese New Year
  • Chinese New Year, 1956
  • Chinatown
  • Pell Street, Chinatown
  • Chinatown, 1945
  • Chinese food store, Park Row
  • Chinese New Year celebrations
  • Chinese grocery store
  • Pell Street produce store

Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.

Next week, the Chinese calendar jumps forward to the year of the Horse, and people around the world will be celebrating with parades, festivals, and plenty of feasts. Chinese Lunar New Year is also tied to agricultural history, celebrating the arrival of spring and the return of planting season, so food naturally plays a large role.

The Museum of Chinese in America provided us with some information on the food customs of the lunar new year. “Snacks and sweets are exchanged between friends and family,” including tangerines, oranges and pomelos. Traditionally, a large family feast is cooked, and leftovers are considered lucky because they symbolize the family will have plenty of food in the following year. (So don’t be ashamed of those takeout containers in you fridge.)

The new-year spread also includes the Tray of Prosperity, which has eight sections. On it you’ll find candied melon (for good fortune), red melon seeds (for joy and happiness), lychee nuts (for strong family ties), kumquat (for prosperity), candied coconut (for togetherness), peanuts (for long life), longans (for “many good sons”), and lotus seeds (for many children). However, there are far more food traditions than just the tray. There’s nian gao—rice cakes that symbolize high goals in the new year—plus long noodles for long life and a whole fish for a lucky year.

The photos above show Lunar New Year celebrations in Manhattan’s Chinatown, as well as groceries and food stands that would have supplied many with the traditional ingredients needed to make a new year’s feast, back when there was no overpriced oyster sauce at your local organic grocery store. For more information on the Chinese in America, visit the New-York Historical Society this fall for the exhibit Chinese American: Inclusion/ExclusionThrough artifacts and media, the exhibition looks at the history of Chinese and American relations, from trade to immigration, and the Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred most Chinese from entering the United States. 

All photos courtesy New-York Historical Society Library

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