Sustainable Seafood Symbolism in Chinese New Year Celebrations

Created on Thursday, 26 January 2012

By Elsie Tanadjaja

Being an Indonesian of Chinese descent, I always celebrated Chinese New Year when I was growing up. Now that I live in the U.S., half the world away from my parents, whenever I plan for Chinese New Year dinner, I have to go online to look up what dishes are traditionally served for this celebration. Usually the feast includes food that symbolizes prosperity and good wishes.

This year, I noticed how important seafood is to the menu, especially fish. Personally, I barely speak any Mandarin and I can’t read the characters, but I am familiar with the Chinese love for homonyms and wordplay. The word for fish, “Yu”, sounds like the word for wish and abundance, so fish is used to symbolize wishes for abundance in the New Year. Fish is also used to symbolize richness, plenty, surplus, luck, prosperity and happiness. Another important custom is to serve the fish whole, with head and tail intact, to signify a good beginning and ending for the year. Sometimes, leftovers from this fish are served on the following day to ensure continued abundance and prosperity for the rest of the year.

steamed fish1

Thinking about these customs and their associated symbolism made me realize that they are inherently linked to the concept of sustainability. Perhaps, when shed in a different light, the idea of sustainable seafood would not appear new or foreign to the Chinese culture, but actually be seen as deeply ingrained in their traditional values. Maybe, by integrating intimate cultural understanding with our communications around sustainable seafood, we can effectively gain broader support in the Asian marketplace. Now that FishWise’s work is reaching far beyond the U.S. and into countries like China, Thailand, Chile and Indonesia, I hope to learn more about how each culture expresses the idea of sustainability.

For assistance in planning a seafood meal please use the Seafood Watch guidelines and in honor of Chinese New Year, why not try this steamed fish recipe. For this auspicious year of the water dragon, I wish you a prosperous and wholesome year.