Rife with symbolism and meaning, the feasting tables of the Chinese New Year are imbued with deep significance – from the individual ingredients used, to the dishes they go into.
In many cases, this is because many Chinese words are homophones – they sound the same but have different meanings.
For instance, glutinous rice cake or “niangao”, sounds like “getting higher year by year”, which denotes gaining prosperity and generally reaching new heights in life. Or that kids are growing taller and getting good grades! Although we don’t really need another reason to eat that lovely, sticky-gooey-chewy concoction, often sandwiched with slices of taro, battered and deep-fried.
The same goes for prawns, with their name (“har”) sounding like the “ha ha ha” of laughter – everyone wants a year of merriment!
With other foods, there is also the shape of things to be considered – sometimes the shape of the food is what makes it lucky, because it invokes an auspicious meaning.
These include Chinese dumplings, or jiaozi, which symbolise wealth. In northern China especially, they can be shaped to resemble silver ingots, curved like half-moons, and eaten on the eve of the new year. Popular fillings include minced pork and shrimp, chicken and vegetables.
Some people even hold to the belief that the more dumplings you eat during Lunar New Year celebrations, the more money you can make in the coming year; others think that eating dumplings filled with shredded radish and cabbage during the festivities on the eve will result in fair skin and temperate moods!
Lots of pleats on the folded edges of the dumplings are good – if they’re too flat, they denote poverty instead. And apparently you should always arrange them in rows on a platter – if they are arranged in circles, it could mean that your life will follow suit, and you’ll never actually get anywhere.
Food can be used to chart a culture’s history – certain ingredients may be scarcer in times of economic hardship, such as with many meats, or the frequent consumption of seafood can denote a community’s seaside and sea-faring roots.
Finally, there are dishes that entrench themselves into family history, carving a mark on personal tradition – in these cases, they take on several more shades of meaning. Such dishes often add another dimension of meaning to all the rest.
The feasting lasts 15 days, beginning from the Reunion Dinner on the eve of the first day of the Lunar New Year (but let’s get real people, you’ve been tossing yee sang since mid-December, right?) right up until Chap Goh Meh – that night when single people toss oranges into seas and lakes in the hope of finding a good partner, and when families sit down for a celebratory meal and make prayers and offerings.
In that time, here are some of the auspicious dishes and ingredients you might find your chopsticks poised over, particularly here in Malaysia.
There’s nary a New Year meal that begins without this fabulous combination of flavours, textures – and meanings. It may have been eaten in ancient China, but today it’s in Malaysia and Singapore that it is most firmly embedded as part of the Lunar New Year celebrations.
While this Teochew-style fish salad – its name “yee sang” or “yusheng”, literally means “raw fish” – can be concocted of a myriad ingredients, there is some structure to the choices.
The fish itself is now usually salmon, although many versions abound, including those with jellyfish, abalone and raw tuna – for those who don’t want to eat raw seafood, the smoked version is used.
There are many shredded vegetables, fruits and herbs, and each carry their own significance: green radish (eternal youth), white radish (work promotions and progress in business), carrot (good luck), and pomelo sacs (wealth). Condiments include crushed peanuts (much silver and gold), sesame seeds (a prosperous business), and crisp crackers that denote a floor laden with gold.
The very serving of the dish is ritualistic, with greetings and wishes to be spoken at each step.
A platter laden with piles of these base ingredients is served first, with New Year wishes uttered at this point. When adding the fish, people say “nian nian you yu”, or a wish for abundance throughout the year. When pepper is sprinkled over, it is in the hope of attracting wealth and having wishes fulfilled.
Then oil is poured over in a circular motion, encouraging the flow of money in from all directions – and smooth sailing for the year ahead.
The various ingredients are added one at a time, each with an ardent wish for some different positive outcome or attribute throughout the year.
And there’s a sweet-ish plum sauce, to attract treasures and set the tone for a year filled with sweetness.
It’s ready now, for all the diners around the table to stand and raise their chopsticks – in many contemporary Chinese restaurants, an over-sized pair just for the yee sang tossing, which you won’t be using to eat with.
The diners toss the yee sang ingredients together, while once again uttering auspicious wishes. The higher the toss, the higher your fortunes go that year – so diners are generally enthusiastic.
Fatt choy (black moss)
While it is eaten like a vegetable in Chinese cuisine (usually Cantonese), this is actually an algae that looks like black hair in its dried form (which is why its Chinese name literally means “hair vegetable”; in Vietnamese, it is tóc tiên, or “angel hair”).
Real fatt choy is actually dark green rather than a true black – it’s not a cheap ingredient, because supply is limited.
Because fatt choy is a homophone for having “struck it rich”, this is an ingredient considered highly auspicious.
Before cooking, fatt choy is soaked and softened; it then takes on a texture like very fine (cooked) vermicelli.
It is often cooked in a braised dish along with mushrooms, dried scallops, dried oysters and sea cucumber, and garnished with broccoli. The oysters are called “ho see”, which sounds like good deeds or happenings, and the word for sea cucumber (hoi sum) sounds like “happiness” – so combining the fatt choy with either or both of these amps up the auspicous meanings.
For Traders Hotel Kuala Lumpur director of communications Theresa Goh, this is one of her favourite dishes on the New Year table. “It’s just my daughter and myself, so every year we have our reunion dinner at the house of a different dear friend, depending on whether we are in Penang or KL,” she said.
“For this dish, I make a stock with pork bones and dried scallops, then add Chinese rice wine, mushrooms and dried oysters and let that simmer to get that lovely sweetness,” she says.
Sea cucumber, abalone and black moss follow suit. “Lace it with a bit of sesame oil, and you’ve got an awesome dish!” said Goh.
The word for fish is “yu”, which sounds like “surplus” – and it’s always good to have a little bit extra. So no matter what other dishes you might have on the table at Chinese New Year, a whole fish is generally one of them. You need to serve it intact, with head and tail, because that means a good beginning and end to the year.
“With the whole fish, it signifies that every year, there is balance,” said Goh. Wishes include nian nian you yu, which means “may you always have more than you need”.
Sometimes, people choose to have a little of the fish dish left over, as this signifies having that little extra too.
Recipes vary – the Cantonese simply steam the fish with soy sauce, ginger and spring onions, while a favourite dish of the Teochew community is fish steamed with salted, preserved vegetables and sour plums.
The kind of fish chosen can also have its own meaning – the Chinese mud carp sounds like the word for gifts, which translates to good fortune, and catfish intensifies that idea of having surplus.
Want to really follow tradition? On the table, the fish should be placed with its head facing the most important guests or elders – it’s a sign of respect – and they would be the first to eat from it.
Again served whole, a platter of chicken is all about prosperity, family togetherness and joy – and because it is intact, wholeness. Obviously, this being the Year of the Rooster doubles the auspicious significance of the bird!
For freelance writer Alice Yong, the New Year feast brings a dish of simple poached chicken on the table.
“In the old days, chicken was a luxury, only served for occasions and major festivals like Chinese New Year,” she said.
“I remember my grandmother saying that the bird symbolises a phoenix, which is why we used it as an offering to the Chinese deities. And that’s one of the reasons that my mother-in-law still prepares poached chicken for prayers at Chinese festivals, even today.
“I like the poached chicken dish because it reminds me of simpler days,” said Yong. “As kids, every time the dish was served, we would know it marked an important festival in the Chinese calendar.
“Some people might find this dish a bit bland but in our family, the chicken is complemented by dark soy sauce, fried shallot oil and home-made chilli sauce – the kind you’ll find at a Hainanese chicken rice shop,” said Yong.
A dish made with pork is said to evoke strength, wealth and an abundance of blessings. “There was a time that only the rich could afford to eat meat. Plus, the pig is generally quite a fat animal, and the Chinese tend to associate fat with being prosperous,” said Yong. “The older folk especially would be quite horrified if the pork is too lean.”
Yong’s family always serves the char yoke at Chinese New Year, a dish of pork braised with black fungus which is synonymous with the Hakka community.
“This braised dish keeps well, and a little pork can go a long way when you add the fungus is added to bulk up the dish,” said Yong. It’s a testament to the thrifty and industrious nature of Hakka women, according to Yong – which they take great pride in.
Hakka women have always made good use of whatever scant ingredients they have on hand to feed their families.
It’s the same story for another favourite Hakka dish, pork trotters stewed in black vinegar.
“Stewing the pork in vinegar also ensures that it can keep longer,” said Yong. “In the olden days, most Chinese homes didn’t have refrigerators to keep left-overs in.
Of the ingredients to grace the Lunar New Year table, the abalone is one which falls more on the luxe side of the spectrum. It also sounds like the Chinese word for fortune.
These sea snails can be bought fresh or tinned, and have a chewy texture like conch. With a mild, naturally briny flavour, abalones tend to take on the flavour more of the stock they are cooked in.
For restaurateur-chef Isadora Chai, this is a must-have.
“My family always gets all these tins of abalone, and we hoard it and eat it during an auspicious occasion,” she said. “It’s not really about the significance of what it means, it’s just out of habit and family tradition – when else would the old aunties actually splurge if not during Chinese New Year!”
Chai prefers the fresh abalone to the tinned though, as it is what she grew up on. “My dad was a lawyer and his clients always gave him fresh abalone. So I grew up eating it.”
In Chai’s family, the abalone will be braised with broccoli and fatt choy, in a master stock made of chicken and pork bones.
The long and short of it is that all sorts of noodles represent a hope for a long life – so when cooking, never cut or break them, as this apparently symbolises cutting that life short. In fact, there are those who believe you shouldn’t cut the noodles even when eating them.
The longer the noodles are, the luckier they are considered. Glass noodles, which are made from mung beans, have the added meaning of symbolising silver chains or threads – which may bring to mind a long-lived elderly person with silver hair!
Chef Darren Teoh is half-Chinese and half-Indian, which makes his reunion dinners a bit different. “There is only one Chinese at our reunion dinners – my dad,” he said. “The rest of my family there are from my mum’s side.”
This year though, there will be two Chinese at the table – Teoh got married last year.
Every year, his mother prepares her late mother-in-law’s dish of glass noodles stir-fried with sliced pork, black fungus and shiitake mushrooms. But for Teoh, the dish has more than auspicious meanings.
“It’s a very simple dish – we come from humble beginnings, and we appreciate small things,” he said. “This dish is about my mom honouring my dad. She makes it because she knows that he misses these things about Ah Ma.”
For Teoh, this is also a reminder of his mother’s selflessness. “She took care of both my grandmothers at home,” he said.
Under the tong sui umbrella fall many sweet liquids – drink-dessert soups that are usually served at the end of a meal. Literally translated to “sugar water”, they are particularly prevalent in Cantonese cuisine. Enjoyed at the Chinese New Year, it would signify a particularly sweet time to be had by all for the coming year.
It is often cooked on the eve of the New Year, to be enjoyed on the first day.
As part of Goh’s celebration, she usually makes a whole pot of this. “It’s made from dried longans, red dates, lotus seeds and white fungus – but I usually leave the last one out because I don’t like it myself,” she said.
In that list of auspicious ingredients, the dried longans hope that one might have a lot of sons, the lotus seeds also wish one the same, plus wealth and the red dates are all about wealth and fertility – looks like this tong sui has one thing on its mind!
“I may be a modern woman, but I like the idea of such significance, of having a good sweet start to the year,” said Goh.