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Chinese New Year Food - Singapore and Malaysia

Updated on January 14, 2017
CYong74 profile image

Cedric earned a bachelor's degree in communications studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, mythology, and video gaming.

Chinese New Year is celebrated in quite the same way throughout Chinese communities worldwide. The gaudy colours, the outrageous street performances, the gathering of families, etc. When it comes to food, variations are mostly due to inclusions of local specialities. Such specialities include dishes created locally that have become hugely popular. The key example would Yu Sheng.

Here are ten traditional Chinese New Year food and dishes widely enjoyed in Singapore and Malaysia during the festival. I'd start with the more generic items, before including the regional specialities of Singapore and Malaysia.

Chinese style hotpot.
Chinese style hotpot. | Source

1. Hot Pot 火锅 (Huo Guo)

In Singapore and Malaysia, we call this "steamboat," but it is very much the same in concept as the versions in China. Families gather around a big pot of steaming broth. and each member cooks his own share by dipping ingredients like fish, vegetables and meat into the broth. (The broth varies a lot; from chicken stock to seafood soup to fiery hot concoctions) A classic dish for Reunion Dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve, this is also essentially a winter dish, since Chinese New Year's Eve is always freezing cold in China. Which makes it somewhat unsuitable for tropical regions. No worries, air conditioning addresses any climate concerns during hot pot celebrations.

Mandarins, symbol of prosperity.
Mandarins, symbol of prosperity. | Source

2. Mandarins 桔子 (Ju Zi)

Mandarins are traditional gifts during Chinese New Year, as they symbolise prosperity. To be (shamefully) honest, I cannot pinpoint the reason for this custom. It could be that the right half of the Chinese character for the fruit also being the character for good fortune. It could be the pronunciation sounding similar to that for luck in some Chinese dialects. In Cantonese, we call this, Kam, which has the same pronunciation as gold. Whatever the reason, mandarins resembles gold with their colour and so the exchange of them, and eating, obviously symbolises great wealth.

3. Chinese New Year Rice Cakes 年糕 (Nian Gao)

This is made mainly from glutinous rice and sugar, with other ingredients added to enhance the flavour. In Singapore and Malaysia, the traditional version is as shown in the picture. Brown and wrapped by lotus leaves. Besides this. there are many other versions. Including white ones (mixed with coconut), and those in elaborate shapes such as carps.

Nian Gao is eaten during Chinese New Year because of the way the name is pronounced. "Nian" means year, while "Gao" has the same sound as tall or high. Paired together, it implies a soaring new year. To note, many Chinese New Year traditional foods are eaten for the same reason. A resemblance of names to auspicious words or phrases.

Chinese New Year Sweetened Rice Cake, or Nian Gao.
Chinese New Year Sweetened Rice Cake, or Nian Gao. | Source
Melon seeds
Melon seeds | Source

4. Melon Seeds 瓜子 (Gua Zi)

There's a lot of house visiting during Chinese New Year, and hosts are expected to prepare appropriate snacks and drinks. Other than all sorts of festive Chinese cookies, melon seeds are also served. A relatively cheap snack previously, nowadays melon seeds can get quite expensive, with all sorts of exotic types imported from worldwide.

I must highlight that melon seeds are not solely a New Year snack. It is a Chinese gathering snack. And so, erm, it is also served to guests during funerals. Of course no one in the right mind would ever mention this during a Chinese New Year visit.

Steamed fish roll delight.
Steamed fish roll delight. | Source

5. Fish 鱼 (Yu)

Fish, or Yu, has the same sound as abundance. A popular Chinese New Year festive greeting is 年年有余 (nian nian you yu), which means plentiful abundance each year. And so once again like mandarins and rice cakes, fish is a staple dish during the festival. No New Year banquet is complete without a fish dish, and this is often a fresh one steamed whole. It is especially popular with business people and New Year business luncheons.

6. Noodles 面 (Mian)

Chinese eat noodles during many celebrations, not just the New Year. This is not because of phonetic resemblances to good luck words, but because the longish shape of noodles symbolises longevity. During formal banquets and dinners, noodles (in replacement of rice) is usually served last. For less formal gatherings, it could be cooked by a host for visiting family members and friends.

Longevity Noodles
Longevity Noodles | Source
La Chang, or Chinese sausages
La Chang, or Chinese sausages | Source

7. Chinese Sausages 腊肠 (La Chang)

There are sausages from all over China, but the most famous ones are those from Southern China. Also known as Lup Cheong in Cantonese. These are the ones most commonly eaten in Singapore and Malaysia. Savoury and rich in taste, La Chang could be used as an enhancing ingredient in many dishes, or served by itself as a side dish. At Chinese New Year bazaars, they would be displayed as shown in the picture, which makes for a unique photographic opportunity.

Fruit jellies store during Chinese New Year.
Fruit jellies store during Chinese New Year. | Source

8. Fruit Jellies 果冻 (Guo Dong)

This is the newest item on the list, and in Singapore, the bulk of them originates from Taiwan. Inspired by Konnyaku or Japanese jellies, they come in a variety of fruity flavours. At New Year bazaars, you buy them by choosing a selection from the heaps displayed, or as boxes with assorted flavours.

Jellies are often sold with mochi too. The Chinese version that is. These are little different from the Japanese sticky rice dumplings where they get their name. Like the jellies, they come with many different fillings, including exotic ones. With their colourful packaging, they are very popular with kids.

The ever popular bwa kua. BBQ-ed and sweetened pork jerky.
The ever popular bwa kua. BBQ-ed and sweetened pork jerky.

9. Barbequed Pork Jerky 肉干 (Rou Gan)

This is a Chinese New Year institution in Singapore and Malaysia. At popular outlets, people would queue for hours to get their boxes, sometimes late into the night. In the Chinatown area of Singapore, it is quite a sight to see the meandering queues patiently waiting, while chefs feverishly flame their grills.

Originally square barbequed slices of seasoned pork, nowadays, chicken Rou Gan is also available, as well as spicy variants. Known also by their Hokkien name of Bwa Kwa, these addictive snacks are sold throughout the year and are heavily promoted as travel souvenirs. Which makes the long queues before Chinese New Year somewhat inexplicable. Maybe it's all a ritual to get into the year-end kind of celebratory feel.

10. Yu Sheng 鱼生 (Yu Sheng)

Yu Sheng, which simply means raw fish, originated in Malaysia. It is an elaborate dish with many ingredients, sauces, condiments, and freshly cut raw fish. Always served as the first dish in a Chinese New Year banquet or formal dinner, the server would present the ingredients and condiments while speaking various auspicious phrases. Thereafter, everybody at the table tosses the ingredients together using chopsticks. Often, it gets very loud and joyous.

And it is the tossing that is symbolic. In Cantonese, it is called lou hei, which I can only roughly translate as "rising in the world," or something similar. To this you add luck, fortune, prosperity, work promotion, academic achievement and everything else one would want for a new year, and you get the ritual that is Yu Sheng. A ritual where families or friends or colleagues gather, and express their aspirations for an abundant New Year together.

Because of its nature, Yu Sheng is an important business ritual for Chinese New Year in Singapore and Malaysia. Many companies do it with staff or customers. If you are attending a Yu Sheng tossing for the first time, take note of some basic etiquettes. Do not start till everyone else does do. Please use a fresh pair of chopsticks. And ... ... if the stuff ends up all over the table from over enthusiastic aspirations, it's fine. Eating the dish itself is secondary. It is all for that symbolic rising of colours and dreams.

(PS: Of all ten items in this list, Yu Sheng is the most regional in nature. So I've been told, it's unheard of in China or even Hong Kong. I suspect though that eventually this would become popular with other Chinese communities.)

Yu sheng. A myriad of colours for a wonderful new year.
Yu sheng. A myriad of colours for a wonderful new year. | Source

Singapore Chinatown bazaar during Chinese New Year season

Lion and Dragon Chinese New Year festive dances in Malaysia


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    • CYong74 profile image

      Cedric Yong 18 months ago from Singapore

      I love Nian Gao. The traditional black sugar type and of late, the coconut pale type. Unfortunately, :( , I tend to get gastric and indigestion after it. Am forced to cut down. Thanks for commenting too!

    • Cheeky Kid profile image

      Cheeky Kid 18 months ago from Milky Way

      My family celebrates Chinese New Year every year and we mostly eat round food. We also always eat "Tikoy (Nian Gao)"--sticky cake which is made of rice.

    • CYong74 profile image

      Cedric Yong 18 months ago from Singapore

      Hi AliciaC, thanks for commenting. Glad you enjoyed my writeup.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 18 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      What an interesting article. I loved learning about food and celebrations that are new to me. The traditions that you describe sound very enjoyable.