Food, fun, family: Cultural events in Asia that bring people together

A standard family gathering in the Philippines. (Photo: Rachel Empig)

The festive season is here in Aotearoa. What major cultural events in Asia bring people together in the same way Christmas does in New Zealand, and what are some of the traditions, dishes and etiquette that belong to these celebrations? Here is an overview.


Vietnamese moon cake

During the Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival, moon cake is eaten.

Kate Phong – Co-founder, AUT-Asia Connect Club:

“The Tết holiday (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) and the Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival are major cultural events.

“During Tết, people traditionally give each other red packets. Chưng cakes and dày cakes are eaten. People from the north display peach blossoms at home, and those from the south display yellow plum blossoms.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, people eat moon cakes. Children play with lanterns and shops put up lantern displays for decoration.

There are long holidays such as Liberation Day (also known as Reunification Day) and International Labour Day too, which hold historic meanings to the country. On both days, everyone hangs the country flag at home.”


Chinese spring rolls

In southern China, spring rolls are eaten on the eve of the lunar new year.

Shao Wei, researcher:

“The celebration of Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, is filled with customs.

“There is a strong cultural imperative for Chinese to return home to celebrate the Lunar New Year with family. This creates a seasonal travel rush of almost 3 billion trips every year.

“Food is essential for a happy Chinese New Year. The dinner on the eve is the most important meal for the festival. It usually consists of eight to 10 dishes. A whole chicken and steamed fish are a must, as the pronunciation of the word chicken (ji) is similar to the word that means auspicious. The Chinese character for fish symbolises prosperity.

“In southern China, spring rolls must appear on the table to celebrate the coming of spring on the eve of the lunar new year. People from northern China eat dumplings to send away the old and welcome the new year.

“One of the most exciting moments during the Chinese New Year celebration is to receive ‘hongbao’, or cash-filled red envelopes, from the family’s elders. The money in the hongbao brings receivers good luck and according to legend, also scares illness and evil away.

“There are some cultural taboos associated with Spring Festival. Traditionally, people avoid wearing white or black as they are seen as unlucky. Sweeping the floor and washing clothes are not allowed on the first day of the Lunar New Year, as wealth and luck are believed to be washed away. It is also unlucky to give odd amounts of money in a red envelope.

“Popular Chinese cultural and food events for Chinese New Year in Aotearoa include Chinese New Year Festival in WellingtonThe Lantern Festival in Auckland and in previous years the South Island Lantern Festival.”

South Korea

Tteokguk rice cake soup (Photo: Soscs/Pixabay)

The most significant dish for the Korean Lunar New Year is tteokguk (rice cake soup).

BB Wilson, administrator:

“Many families get together for Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year) and Chuseok (Korean Mid-Autumn Festival).

Seollal is one of the most significant holidays in the Korean calendar. During this time, many Koreans perform ancestral rites, exchange gifts, wear the hanbok, and play folk games. Chuseok is one of the most widely-celebrated holidays in South Korea. Families gather to honour ancestors, spend time with each other, and have great feasts.

“The most significant dish for the New Year is tteokguk (rice cake soup). In Korean tradition, having a bowl of tteokguk in the morning of the new year makes you a year older – although some people avoid tteokguk precisely because they don’t want to become older. Tteokguk is a broth consisting of beef, vegetables, egg, and rice cakes. The recipe can vary from region to region. Many Koreans also eat galbijjim (braised beef short ribs) during Seollal.

“During Seollal, a lot of young people demonstrate sebae (bowing) and they get some money from their parents, aunties and uncles.

“For Chuseok, Koreans prepare songpyeon which are small half-moon-shaped rice cakes. They can be sweet or savoury and are made of rice powder dough stuffed with fillings such as red beans, chestnuts and sesame seeds. Koreans also prepare a variety of food for their ancestors.”


Pancit Filipino food

Filipino foods present in most celebrations include an array of noodle dishes.

Rachel Empig, development officer: 

“The Philippines is an archipelagic country of over 7,000 islands. People are spread across islands, mountains, and sprawling cities. Each province has their own unique festival. Many festivals have roots in the province’s particular culture, environment and people.

A unique feature in many Philippines festivals however, is the Spanish influence – in particular the introduction of Roman Catholicism. Because of this religious aspect, many festivals involve attendance at Mass, the presence of a priest, prayers and other Catholic traditions.

The Philippines is also heavily influenced by Chinese culture. The oldest Chinatown in the world is in Manila and Chinese New Year is a popular festival for all Filipinos whether or not they have Chinese ancestry.

Apart from each province’s festivals, there are holidays and traditions that many Filipinos celebrate no matter which part of the country they live in, particularly All Souls Day in November, a day to honour loved ones who have passed away. On this day, most Filipinos go to the cemetery to visit the graves of deceased relatives and friends. Once they arrive they clean the tombs, light up candles, offer flowers, and say a prayer for the souls of the departed.

As lunchtime approaches, everyone sets the table for the various dishes cooked for All Souls Day. It usually includes the deceased loved one’s favourite dish. A plate of food is placed in front of the tomb or grave as offering for the soul of the relative or friend. Priests also go around the cemetery to offer prayers and bless graves.

Another common tradition is Noche Buena, which is celebrated on the night of Christmas Eve all the way through to the early hours of Christmas Day. This involves a Mass at around 10pm and then returning to a family home for eating food and gift-opening at midnight.

Filipino foods present in most celebrations include: 

  • Lechon – whole spit roast pig
  • An array of noodle dishes such as pancit, spaghetti (Filipino style), palabok
  • Lumpiang Shanghai (pork spring roll)
  • Embutido (meat loaf)
  • Macaroni salad
  • Inihaw isda – BBQ fish
  • Inihaw baboy – BBQ pork.”

– Asia Media Centre