It’s that time of the year for Chinese communities the world over to reunite with loved ones – near and far – as they merrily and boisterously usher in the Lunar New Year as the Boar (the 12th animal in the Chinese Zodiac) presides from February 5, 2019 to January 24, 2020.
And what could be better than basking in the warm company and love of family and friends? Celebrating it through food, of course – the universal glue that binds mankind! Here’s a look at the 10 essential dishes that are served during Chinese New Year, and what these dishes symbolise.
‘Yee Sang’ or ‘yusheng’ is without a doubt the guest of honour at every Chinese New Year reunion dinner in Malaysia and Singapore; it’s interesting to note that the raw fish salad dish is practically unheard of in other Chinese-populated countries. ‘Fish’ in Mandarin/Hokkien sounds like ‘abundance’, hence yee sang/yusheng is considered a symbol of good fortune, abundance, prosperity and vigour. The festive essential comprises strips of raw fish (usually salmon), shredded vegetables, pomelo, ginger, pepper and oil, along with a variety of sauces and condiments. The ritual toss of the yee sang is a fun affair – diners stand around the table and start tossing the potpourri of ingredients high up in the air – the higher the toss, the better – whilst saying various wishes out loud, or simply “loh hey, loh hey”.
Whether they’re boiled, steamed or fried, dumplings are a yummy treat! And when they’re eaten during the Chinese New Year, there’s a belief that the more dumplings you eat, the more money you’ll have as its shape resembles gold ingots, a form of currency used in ancient China. And different fillings represent different meanings as well; for example, a filling of celery (‘qincai’ in Mandarin), means hardworking leads to a wealthy life; leek (‘jiucai’) means everlasting affluence; and cabbage (‘baicai’) refers to a hundred ways of making moolah.
Savouring chicken or duck – served whole with the head and the feet still intact – represents closeness, unity between families, joy and rebirth. Once prepared, the dish will be offered to the families’ ancestors first. (Praying to the ancestors for blessings and protection is a significant facet of the Chinese culture.)
A fish dish is a MUST during Chinese New Year dinners. Why? Because the Chinese character for prosperity, ‘yu’, is a homophone for the word for fish, which is ‘yu’. And there’s a saying that goes with the special Chinese New Year fish dish too – ‘nian nian you yu’, which means ‘may the year bring prosperity’. Remember to leave the leftovers for the next day as this connotes that the prosperity will continue on.
The Chinese word for rice cake, ‘nian gao’, correlates to the phrase ‘nian nian gao sheng’, which means ‘increasing prosperity year after year’. Hence enjoying these rice cakes symbolise progress, advancement and growth. Available in both savoury and sweet variations, these cakes are always a welcome sight at CNY reunion dinners!
In Mandarin, pomelos are called ‘you zi’, which is a homophone for ‘again’ – and carries the same sound to the word for ‘have’. Combined, they represent ‘to have again’, which means eating pomelo would mean ‘to have again’, suggesting more wealth, good health, unity of family and fertility.
Prosperity cakes, or ‘fa gao’, are “the usual suspects” during CNY celebrations. The Chinese character ‘fa’ means ‘prosperity’, so look out for the blossoming of the rice flour cakes once they rise; the more petals that blossom, the more prosperity you’ll be blessed with! These cakes usually come in various colours such as pink and yellow, adding to the festive mood.
Long noodles, or ‘mian tiao’, are considered good luck during Chinese New Year as they represent longevity. They are usually served uncut as the longer the noodles, the better! Vermicelli or bee hoon is a favourite, and is typically served fried with various other ingredients such as egg, chicken and seafood.
Spring rolls (or ‘chun juan’) are often served during the celebrations as the gold-coloured fried cylindrical-shaped rolls look like ‘gold bars’, and that of course represents wealth! The words ‘chun juan’ literally mean spring and roll, so eating spring rolls is a way to welcome the arrival of spring.
Sweet Glutinous Rice Balls
Usually enjoyed during the 15th day of the celebrations, sweet glutinous rice balls (or ‘tang yuan’) are an important dessert as its Chinese word, ‘tang yuan’, and roundness of the rice balls signify a complete circle of harmony and unity within the family. They are commonly served in a soup with the traditional fillings such as sesame paste, red bean and peanuts.
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