Chinese New Year
In my family, there are numerous dinners. But always New Year's Eve at my Popo's house and New Year's Day at my parents. And all involve much of the foods mentioned by Peter and Jenn below. Also, the week leading up to (I think that's the time frame) we go to Popo's for tong yoon (rolled rice dumplings).
In addition, Popo always made at least a pan of law bok go (turnip cake), as well as a slew of fat go (steamed brown sugar muffins) for every household. Last year, my uncle insisted that the grating was too much work for her, so I got to help (my Cuisinart, too). It was great to take the day off from work and spend it with her making these essential family favorites.
Chinese New Year cake is traditionally presented to friends and neighbors on New Year's Day calls. It's like fruitcake in the Christmas tradition, only in this case the gift is considered to be a friendly gesture ;).
Chinese New Year cake is made from sweet rice flour and optionally nuts and dried fruits, which is steamed, chilled to firm it up, then dipped in egg and fried into a sweet goo with slightly crisp edges.
The traditional thing is mostly to have a sumptious feast on New Years Eve for family. I think the "symbolic" foods are a relatively minor part of it, and vary by region, as the homonyms tend to get lost when you switch dialects. In the North, crescent shaped dumplings are traditional (new moon-shaped) as are noodles. My wife always makes egg jiaozi because they resemble little gold ingots. She'll serve them in a soup with bean thread.
It's also the time of year to start eating Shanghai's favorite comfort food, a soup known as "yanduxian" (but pronounced much differently in Shanghai dialect): salt pork with fresh bamboo shoots and bean thread. It's a combination of last year's bounty, preserved, with the New Year's promise of the fresh bamboo.
The sounding like money thing is not limited to Cantonese but is true, to the best of my knowledge, in Mandarin as well.
A couple of the dishes we have for our local FCC banquet are braised lettuce with shitake mushrooms and noodles. The lettuce dish has to do with money and the noodles are long life.
When we did dinner at home, we had a whole steamed fish with green onion, garlic and ginger. It was really fantastic.
You can find a lot of information on Chinese New Year traditions at the Chinasprout website.
I'll venture eventhough I can't spell (see my previous message subject).
For Cantonese, you usually want dishes that rhymes with money, lots of money, making money, and in general, getting rich (see the theme here?).
A couple of standards is anything that rhymes with "Choy", which means fortune in Cantonese. Luckily it also means vegetable. So essentially a lot of vegetables are appropriate here. One standard is "hair vegetable", which sounds like getting rich (Fat Choy). But hair vegetable is expensive. So lettuce is also good. It also sounds like getting rich ("sound choy").
Other items are the standard shark fin, fish maw, abalone, and sea slug.
Another choice is fish. In Cantonese it means having left overs, meaning you have enough food for the rest of the year.
Be aware that if you serve fish or chicken, serve it whole (with head). Wholeness is very important.
A few more, dried oyster Ho See meaning good things. Tofu meaning something as moving ahead on the job. A yellow cupcake Fat Go which moving up in business. Lop Chong for long life.
The whole has the meaning from keep the family together. Since is the first Chinese New Year that we will all be home for a while we are planning a big home cooked menu which I will post after we finish eating it.