Chinese New Year is a time to celebrate and see your long lost relatives. Food is always a guaranteed part of the occasion. In fact, you can’t celebrate Chinese New Year without feasting. Chinese traditions dictate that there are certain dishes that everyone must eat during the celebrations.
While each family and dialect group have their own specialties for the Lunar New Year, there are several common dishes. These foods have deep meaning and often symbolise something good and auspicious for the year. If you’re wondering what these food customs are, just read on:
Any types of long noodles are considered good luck during Chinese New Year and are usually served uncut. The longer the noodles, the better. Vermicelli or Bee Hoon is a favorite during this time and is usually served fried up with various seafood.
Noodles represent longevity, a hope that everyone around the table enjoys a long and happy life.
Chinese Black Moss or Fatt Choy
Cantonese people, especially, must have some black moss or Fatt Choy on the table during Chinese New Year. This hairlike fungus has a name that sounds like ‘Prosperity’ and is usually braised with dried oysters and other vegetables. When cooked with dried oysters, it’s called Fatt Choy Ho See.
Although it looks a little alarming, Fatt Choy is actually very nutritious and good for you. It’s chock full of vitamins and a rich source of antioxidants and minerals too.
Yee Sang is particularly popular where almost every family and business has a ‘lou hei’ or tossing session at least once during the festivities. This dish is actually a salad made with julienned vegetables like carrots, radish and jicama. Crackers and sesame seeds are often added, as well as some raw fish ( usually salmon). Some people also add mandarin oranges to the mix.
The Yee Sang tossing ceremony, also called ‘Lou Hei’ is an event in itself and it is said that whoever tosses the highest will have the best fortune for the year.
Fish or ‘Yu’
The Chinese word for fish, which is ‘Yu’ sounds a lot like the words for ‘excess’. Therefore having fish on the table during Chinese New Year is interpreted as an auspicious symbol for wealth. This is usually the time when grandma’s secret recipe comes out and fish is enjoyed in a different way for each family. A whole fish is usually steamed or deep fried with a crispy batter and topped with a sweet and sour sauce.
Another favourite during Chinese New Year is Poon Choi or Pen Cai. It’s a large pot with a rich variety of ingredients layered one on top of the other. At the bottom of the dish, layers of vegetables like Chinese cabbage, radish, broccoli and mushrooms are placed down to soak up the juices of the meats above.
Subsequent layers will consist of meats like chicken, duck, pork and beef whereas the uppermost layers will include seafood like fish maw, prawn, crabs, fish balls and even abalones. The large pot is simmered until all the ingredients cook together to give a rich, savoury flavour.
Dumplings or Jiao Zi are very common in many Chinese households during this season as they are thought to represent gold ingots. Therefore, their unique shapes give the impression that there’s going to be more wealth and prosperity coming soon.
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These dumplings are usually filled with minced pork, chicken or vegetables like radish. They’re steamed or fried and served with a soy sauce based dipping sauce.
Nian Gao or Glutinous Rice Cake
Nian Gao literally translates to “Year Cake / Pastry”. It’s made out of glutinous rice flour, brown sugar, and sometimes red beans. The sticky rice cake’s name, “Nian Gao”, also means that you will rise higher every year. The second word “Gao” can also mean high. You eat Nian Gao with your family to symbolise the prosperity that will be bigger, better, and “higher” than the year before.
This Nian Gao is different from Korea’s Tteok, which are most commonly found in the spicy rice cake street food and is considered a savoury food. Nian Gao is instead sliced into rectangular pieces, coated with a flour, water and egg mixture, and deep fried to a crisp as a sweet snack.
Pomelos are called “yòu zǐ” in Mandrin, which carries the same sound to the word for “again” and also a similar tone to the word for “have”. Put together, eating a pomelo would mean “to have again”, and that also means that you’ll gain more wealth. The pomelo symbolises good health, the unity of family, and fertility.
Pomelos can be eaten on its own as a fruit, put in desserts like the Mango Pomelo Sago Dessert, and sprinkled onto the Yee Sang we were talking about above.
Mandarin Oranges / Tangerines
Mandarin Oranges are ubiquitous during Chinese New Year. They always come in pairs and are exchanged in every household visit. The bright orange means good fortune, not only because of the colour, but because the words for “orange” and “tangerine” have a similar sound to the words for “wealth” and “luck”.
They’re exchanged in pairs because it is part of a Chinese belief that everything is better when it comes in pairs (well, except for the number 4 because it sounds like the word “death”). Remember to get a different pair of oranges in return, since the exchange represents an exchange of gold / wealth. If you’re the host, you’ll want to receive your gift of wealth well.
Once again, the pineapple is favoured in the form of tarts and as a fruit because it symbolises wealth. This is especially evident in the Cantonese and Hokkien translation of the word “pineapple”. “Wong Lai” or “Ong Lai” literally sounds like the coming of prosperity. That is why pineapple tarts have become a staple in every household — that, and they’re pretty addictive!
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