The Chinese Lantern Festival, also known as the Yuanxiao Festival, occurs on the 15th day of the first lunar month. It is sometimes regarded as the last day of Spring Festival. The Lantern Festival initially began during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-221 AD) but gained greater popularity throughout the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. The event remains a hugely popular spectacle today, and is easily one of the most recognizable and iconic aspects of Chinese culture. As the name suggest, this holiday features a variety of attractions (like music, parades, and fireworks), but namely, it offers a glittering sea of lanterns marched about beneath the glow of the full moon. But as with any festivity, one of the greatest tenets of celebrating the Lantern Festival remains the smorgasbord of delightful food options. Below are five of the most can’t-miss entrees, plus a little backstory on each.
1. Tangyuan and yuanxiao
While these two names more or less refer to the same item, this traditional dish of a glutinous rice ball may vary in title depending on if you’re in Northern or Southern China. Yuanxiao, from Northern China, is a sweet rice ball that is boiled or fried and stuffed with sweet fillings like peanut, sesame, bean paste, or jujube. Tangyuan, on the other hand, is typically boiled and served with a soup, and stuffed with a sweet and savory selection of fillings such as peanut, sesame, bean paste, jujube, meat, or fruits. Where Yuanxiao is firm in texture, Tangyuan is soft and sticky. Eating one of these treats is integral to experiencing the Chinese Lantern Festival.
Dumplings are a common sight for holiday menus, particularly in Northern China. As with many cultures, certain foods are considered especially symbolic— such is the case with the dumpling. The almost crescent-like shape of the dumpling resembles a gold ingot from ancient China. Thus, munching on dumplings during the holidays signifies a wish for treasure and good fortune
Zongzi, or traditional Chinese rice pudding, is a favorite for both the Dragon Boat Festival and the Lantern Festival. Zongzi is a hearty dish comprised of rice and different fillings that are wrapped in a bamboo leaf and boiled or steamed. Fillings can vary greatly, but may include anything from mung bean to mushrooms, salted eggs, pork, chicken, scallops, and more. Local people may boil the zongzi for more than 10 hours.
4. Roasted melon seeds
Hors d’oeuvres, anyone? Roasted melon seeds, along with other various candies and nuts, are an important part of the snack trays prepared for guests to munch on during Lantern Festival parties.
Who doesn’t love wontons? These satisfying pouches are similar to dumplings, and typically filled with pork and shrimp. Eating them is said to encourage a streak of luck.
So, what are you waiting for? Grab a paper lantern and grab a rice ball. It’s time to illuminate the sky and your taste buds!