Chinese New Year Food–Singapore and Malaysia
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 mostly come from the inclusions of local specialities. A key example of such local specialities would be Yu Sheng.
The following are ten traditional Chinese New Year food and dishes widely enjoyed in Singapore and Malaysia during the Chinese New Year.
1. Hot Pot 火锅 (Huo Guo)
In Singapore and Malaysia, this is known as "Steamboat," and it is very much the same in concept as the versions in China. Families gather around a big pot of steaming broth, with each person cooking his or her own share by dipping ingredients like fish, vegetables or meat into the broth. (The broth varies a lot; from chicken stock to seafood soup, to fiery hot mala concoctions) A classic dish for Reunion Dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve, this is also essentially a winter dish, as Chinese New Year's Eve is always freezing cold in China. This makes Steamboat somewhat unsuitable for tropical regions in yesteryears. However, this is no longer an issue, given the convenience of modern air conditioning.
2. Mandarins 桔子 (Ju Zi)
Mandarins are traditional gifts during Chinese New Year as they symbolise prosperity. Foremost among the many reasons behind this belief is that the right half of the Chinese character for the fruit is also the character for good fortune. At the same time, most Chinese dialect pronunciations for mandarins is similar to that for luck. Lastly, mandarins strongly resemble gold and are pleasing to smell. The eating and exchange of them thus doubly symbolise great wealth.
3. Chinese New Year Rice Cakes 年糕 (Nian Gao)
Chinese New Year rice cakes, or Nian Gao, are made from glutinous rice and sugar, with other ingredients occasionally added to enhance flavour. In Singapore and Malaysia, the traditional and most popular version is as shown in the picture above, steamed with brown sugar and wrapped by lotus leaves. Other than this, there are also more modern versions, for example, white coconut-flavoured ones. In recent years, gourmet confectioneries have featured elaborate Nian Gao in the shape of Chinese auspicious animals. A very popular version is that of graceful carps.
As for the reason for eating Nian Gao, this is largely due to the sound of the name. "Nian" means year, while "Gao" has the same sound as tall or high. Paired together, it implies a soaring new year. Of note, many Chinese New Year traditional foods are eaten for the same reason. Practically all Chinese New Year festive foods have auspicious sounding, pleasing names.
4. Melon Seeds 瓜子 (Gua Zi)
House visits are imperative during Chinese New Year, with hosts expected to prepare appropriate festive snacks and drinks. Other than all sorts of cookies and nuts, melon seeds are also commonly served. A relatively cheap snack in the past, melon seeds could nowadays be quite expensive, with all sorts of exotic variants imported from worldwide. Nonetheless, they remain a popular Chinese New Year snack. For some families, also considered a must-have.
5. Fish 鱼 (Yu)
Like the case for mandarin oranges or rice cake, fish is eaten during Chinese New Year because of the pronunciation of its name. In Chinese, fish is pronounced as “Yu,” this being the same sound as the word for abundance. A popular Chinese New Year festive greeting is 年年有余 (nian nian you yu), which means plentiful abundance each year. No New Year banquet is ever complete without a fish dish, this usually being a fresh one steamed whole. Because of the connotation, fish dishes are also especially popular with business people during festive luncheons.
6. Noodles 面 (Mian)
Chinese eat noodles during many celebrations, not just the New Year. This is not because of any phonetic resemblance to good luck words but because the longish shape of noodles symbolizes longevity. During formal banquets and dinners, noodles, in replacement of rice, are usually served before dessert. For less formal gatherings, it could also be cooked by a host for visiting family members and friends. Or used as one of the final raw ingredients during hot pots gatherings.
7. Chinese Sausages 腊肠 (La Chang)
There are sausages from all over China, but the most famous and popular ones are undoubtedly those from Southern China. Known as Lup Cheong in Cantonese, these are the ones most commonly eaten in Singapore and Malaysia, especially during Chinese New Year celebrations. Savoury and rich in taste, La Chang/Lup Cheong are used as an enhancing ingredient in many dishes, if not served as a dish itself. At Chinese New Year bazaars, they would often be displayed as shown in the picture above. You’d agree that such displays provide for unique photographic opportunities for foreigners and tourists.
8. Fruit Jellies 果冻 (Guo Dong)
The newest item on this list, the bulk of fruit jellies sold during Chinese New Year originates from Taiwan. Inspired by Konnyaku or Japanese jellies, these come in a variety of fruity flavors, often with sweet fillings too. At Chinese New Year bazaars, they are usually sold as shown above, with piles of different flavors for shoppers to choose from.
Jellies are often sold with mochi too. That is, the Chinese version of mochi. These are little different from the Japanese sticky rice dumplings where they get their name from. Like fruit jellies, they come with many different fillings, including exotic ones. With their colorful packaging, they are very popular with children.
9. Barbequed Pork Jerky 肉干 (Rou Gan)
Rou Gan is a Chinese New Year institution in Singapore and Malaysia. At popular outlets, Chinese families would queue for hours to get their boxes, sometimes late into the night. In the Chinatown area of Singapore, it is quite a spectacle to see meandering queues patiently waiting while chefs feverishly flame their grills.
Originally square barbequed slices of seasoned pork, nowadays, chicken Rou Gan is also available, on top of spicy variants. More commonly referred to by their Hokkien name of Bwa Kwa, these addictive snacks are actually sold throughout the year as well as heavily promoted as travel souvenirs. The latter makes the long queues before Chinese New Year somewhat inexplicable. Perhaps the queuing has evolved into a ritual that is part of the New Year festive feel.
10. Yu Sheng 鱼生 (Yu Sheng)
Yu Sheng, which simply means raw fish, originated in Malaysia. It is an elaborate dish consisting of freshly sliced raw fish served with many condiments and sauces. Always the first dish to be served during a Chinese New Year banquet, the server would present the platter while reciting auspicious phrases. Thereafter, everybody at the table tosses the ingredients together using chopsticks. Often, the ritual gets very boisterous.
Of note, the name of the dish and the act of tossing are equally symbolic. Yu Sheng in Chinese could mean “the birth of abundance,” while the act of tossing the many ingredients implies great achievement or “rising in the world.” In Cantonese, the tossing is referred to as lou hei, and these doubly means career success. To this, add aspirations for luck, fortune, prosperity, work promotion, academic achievement, and you get the lively ritual that is Singaporean and Malaysian Asian Yu Sheng. For Chinese business people in the region, no Chinese New Year celebration is proper without a decent lou hei.
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.
© 2016 Kuan Leong Yong