Lunar New Year is all about food, family, food, peacebuilding and food

What I love about celebrating Lunar New Year is how food’s role in fostering positive relations is front and centre.

Lunar New Year (taking place this year from 10 to 25 February) marks the beginning of the lunisolar calendar. It is celebrated by billions of people across the world and called by different names – like Chun Jie (Spring Festival) in China, Tết in Vietnam and Seollal in Korea.

There are regional and cultural differences in how people celebrate the New Year, but in all versions, food plays a primary role in much of the celebration.

As a Malaysian Chinese person, Chinese New Year is my favourite festival because of how food brings my extended (and very big) family together.

A day before the new year, our family gathers for the family reunion meal. Food is always and undeniably the most-anticipated element – family favourites are roast duck with hoisin sauce, longevity noodles (signifying long life for the eater) and bright green broccoli with fat shiitake mushrooms.

Many households serve ‘steamboat‘, also known as ‘hotpot’. The choice of steamboat is purposeful: the pot used for this beloved dish is circular in shape, symbolising reunion, oneness and harmony.

The ‘reunion meal’ is usually the most extravagant meal of the celebrations and is instrumental for family cohesion: even when family members have disagreements, they put those aside for the day to cook and eat.

The very act of eating together is an acknowledgment that familial relationships are valuable and worth protecting. Unsurprisingly, the reunion meal’s harmony-building qualities are the basis for the world’s largest annual migration, with approximately nine billion domestic trips in China alone.

What people eat during the Lunar New Year has morphed over time, reflecting how identity and culture are fluid.

Yee sang‘ is a ‘prosperity salad’ with roots in Malaysia, but now eaten at many Chinese reunion gatherings during the Lunar New Year period. There is no set ingredient list and no limit to how you display the ingredients: just lots of fun and colour!

Everyone present, young and old, grabs a pair of chopsticks and takes part in tossing the salad. The higher the toss, the better. Words are then spoken over the meal (often tongue in cheek): Prosperity! Blessings! Good health!

Like steamboat, yee sang is rich with symbolism and a call for more peace and joy over the coming year. This is one salad my children will gladly eat with gusto.

Lunar New Year feasting, beyond its cohesive and harmonising role within the family, is also an opportunity to bring together people of different cultures and faiths. In Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, ‘open houses‘ are common events where New Year’s hospitality – and food – is generously extended to friends and the wider community.

Everyone is welcome, neighbours and strangers included. Open houses are more than just big parties – they are critical to fostering the social bonds that underpin peaceful and harmonious societies.

Open houses build bridges, even with those who disagree about politics, values or social issues. Their strategic value in multi-cultural societies cannot be overstated. Communal feasting provides opportunities to build relationships – perhaps even friendships that may withstand the pressures of divides so common in more polarised times.

My deep conviction that food can create and sustain social bonds across conflict forms the basis of much of my work to build peace at multiple levels. As a lawyer, I use food to facilitate difficult conversations and when mediating disputes.

My research with young people in Melbourne examines some of the different ways they use food practices to positively negotiate conflict in its many forms (whether personally, culturally or politically). In my doctoral work, I coined the term ‘food peacebuilding’ to encapsulate food’s vital, often underrated, role in ‘peacebuilding’.

While terms like ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘peacemaking’ are well-understood, ‘peacebuilding’ is still relatively unfamiliar to most people.

Peacekeeping is often associated with neutral military forces, like the UN military observers in the Middle East, whose presence is required to contain widespread violence.

Peacemaking, on the other hand, is a process involving dialogue and negotiation to forge settlements between disputing parties. Peacebuilding goes further.

Peacebuilding encompasses the full range of peace and conflict management practices to manage and transform violence. Instead of analysing conflict as a matter between the immediate parties (as in peacekeeping and peacemaking), peacebuilding understands conflict as a complex system.

For peacebuilders, sustainable and inclusive peace requires long-term, multi-actor approaches going beyond politicians and soldiers. Every person has a role to play, whether they know it or not.

This is why I find food peacebuilding fascinating. Because everyone must eat, everyone has the capacity to transform conflict for good.

Appreciating the Lunar New Year’s potential for food peacebuilding does not mean romanticising an absence of conflict. Family feuds might still persist. Resentment might grow from the excessive planning and cooking required. ‘Open houses’, in reality, might be open in name only.

Nevertheless, Lunar New Year food practices hold great peacebuilding value. Reunion meals and open houses draw different people together. And eating yee sang is fun and undeniably tasty.

These aspects of my Lunar New Year celebrations are why I believe food peacebuilding is so effective: eating a meal together reminds us that harmony is possible, even when conflict persists.

If you haven’t celebrated Lunar New Year before, why not invite yourself to someone’s reunion meal or open house? The chances are that they will appreciate your desire to connect.

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