Symbolism in Chinese food: prosperity

Steamed whole fish

Serving a whole fish symbolizes prosperity. The fish, usually a whitefish like tilapia, is steamed in a shallow dish with soya sauce, ginger and green onions. Someone gets to “carve” the fish, which involves serving everyone a piece of the top side of the fish, deftly removing the backbone, and then leaving the bottom side of the fish in the pan.

Do not, under any circumstances, try to get to the bottom side of the fish by flipping it over. My family never observed this rule while I was growing up, and in grad school, I almost did this at a friend’s New Year’s Eve dinner. He flew across the table at me, arms flailing, his mouth open in a slow-motion “nooooooo……..” as he stopped me before I damaged the table’s prosperity.

If you’re sneaky, you might be able to steal the fish cheeks before anyone else is the wiser. They’re my favourite part of the fish. My childhood best friend would give me the cheeks in exchange for the eyeballs, which she would suck until they were all shrivelled and gross. Because fish eyeballs aren’t gross to begin with.


Lettuce also represents prosperity, though I have no idea why. Maybe it has something to do with the shape of a head of lettuce: seemingly endless layers and layers of it.

I remember one dim sum lunch in Toronto at a very large Chinese restaurant. There were dragon dances, and the highlight of the dance was when the dragons (two-person dragons, one as the butt and one controlling the head) climbed on chairs to grab a head of lettuce that was suspended from the ceiling. Then the dragons “spat” the lettuce out, showering some tables in a mess of lettuce. My cousin got lettuce on her head, which is, in the words of my uncle, “very auspicious.” Huh.


8 responses to “Symbolism in Chinese food: prosperity

  1. EWWW eyeballs.

  2. Tilapia is more recent. It used to be rock cod.

    And the reason for lettuce is very simple: each leaf looks like a dollar bill, so a head is like a big wad of dollar bills!

  3. Oh, and definitely go for the fish cheeks! It’s like eating the oysters from a roast chicken.

  4. Kate – that’s what I think, but she seemed to like them.

    Joseph – thanks for the lettuce tip. If only it were a big wad of dollar bills (y’all).

  5. Lettuce is because in Chinese it’s called “Sahng Choi” 生菜
    Sahng 生 mean life.

  6. Lettuce is because in Chinese it’s called “Sahng Choi” 生菜
    Sahng 生 means life.

  7. josephwuorigami

    Ah, yes. You’re absolutely right, Alvin. Twice right, even. 🙂 I was mixing up the lettuce symbolism from the lion dance. Sorry about that!

  8. Look at you, all smart with your Chinese characters!

    (Thanks for the Chinese expertise.)

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