The Symbolic Reason Whole Chicken Is Served During Lunar New Year Feasts

Of all the times chicken makes an appearance at the festive table, none may be as meaningful as when it is served during Lunar New Year or Spring Festival dinner, which is held on the first new moon of the lunar calendar, per Britannica. Like all of the other dishes that are served during this important Asian holiday, this dish has a meaning, too, and it all comes down to the way the word "chicken" sounds in Chinese.

Per Atlas Obscura, family dining traditions related to the Lunar New Year have to do with consuming "lucky foods," that is, dishes whose names sound identical to invocations of riches, health, success, good fortune, and family togetherness in the new year. The play on words or homophones are what make these dishes especially prized during the Lunar New Year, bringing logic to what might otherwise look like an ecclectic menu. For instance, the traditional Chinese New Year Cake or "nien gao" (getting higher year-on-year) speaks of aspirations of promotions or upward mobility; sweet rice balls or "tangyuan" invokes wishes of reunions and being together, according to China Highlights. The eye-catching eight treasure rice or "ba bao fan" promises great wealth in the form of eight treasures, per Serious Eats.

Whole chickens are symbolic to the Asian cultures that mark the Lunar New Year. Chicken's Chinese name ("ji") is not only a homophone for good luck and great wealth, per China Highlights, but it is also a symbol of reuniting families, per Michelin.

How Lunar New Year chickens are prepared

There's a bit of leeway involved in how Lunar New Year chickens are prepared. They can be braised or roasted, per China Highlights; they can also be marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, cooking wine, and aromatics such as ginger and green onion, per The China Project. But no matter how it's cooked, the fowl has to be served intact from head to claw. It is often served cold ,too, because chickens are normally presented as part of an offering to one's ancestors or gods before they're consumed during the family banquet.

Eating the chicken isn't as straightforward as diving in and helping yourself, either. Per The China Project, family traditions could dictate the way chicken is consumed. In some cases, chicken feet — which is considered a delicacy when it is fried then braised, dim sum style, per Hungry Huy — is saved and given to the family's chief earner as a way of wishing that whatever income earned can be held onto.

But chicken at the Lunar New Year table isn't always a sign of good fortune. Employers who take staff out for a festive dinner to mark the holiday have also been known to use chicken to let the staff know they are being let go. If a chicken is served with the head pointing in the direction of a particular employee, it is almost a guarantee that the person will be fired, per Procuratorate Daily (via The World of Chinese).