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.
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.
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, and each member cooks his 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 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. However, this is not an issue that modern air conditioning cannot address.
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 the flavour. In Singapore and Malaysia, the traditional and most popular version is as shown in the picture above, brown and wrapped by lotus leaves. Other than this, there are also more modern versions. For example, white, coconut-flavoured ones. Or those in shapes of auspicious animals 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. Of note, many Chinese New Year traditional foods are eaten for the same reason. This being a resemblance of names to auspicious words or phrases.v
4. Melon Seeds 瓜子 (Gua Zi)
House visits are common during Chinese New Year, with hosts expected to prepare appropriate snacks and drinks. Other than all sorts of festive Chinese cookies, 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 types imported from worldwide. Nonetheless, they remain a popular Chinese New Year snack. For some families, almost considered a must-have.
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 like mandarins and rice cakes, fish is a staple dish during the festival. No New Year banquet is complete without a fish dish, this often being 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 any phonetic resemblance to good luck words, but because the longish shape of noodles symbolises longevity. During formal banquets and dinners, noodles, in replacement of rice, are usually served before dessert. For less formal gatherings, it could be cooked by a host for visiting family members and friends. Or used as one of the ingredients in hotpots.
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, especially during New Year celebrations. Savoury and rich in taste, La Chang/Lup Cheong could be used as an enhancing ingredient in many dishes, or served as a dish itself. At Chinese New Year bazaars, they would often be displayed as shown in the picture. Which makes for unique photographic opportunities for 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, they come in a variety of fruity flavours, often with fillings too. At New Year bazaars, you buy by choosing a selection from the heaps displayed, or in 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 from. Like fruit jellies, they come with many different fillings, including exotic ones. With their colourful 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, people 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. Known also by their Hokkien name of Bwa Kwa, these addictive snacks are actually sold throughout the year and are 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 with many ingredients, sauces, condiments, and freshly cut raw fish. Always served as the first dish in a Chinese New Year banquet, the server would present the ingredients and condiments while reciting auspicious phrases. Thereafter, everybody at the table tosses the ingredients together using chopsticks. Often, the ritual gets very boisterous.
Of note, it is the tossing that is symbolic. In Cantonese, this is called lou hei, which roughly translates as "rising in the world," or “great achievement.” To this you add luck, fortune, prosperity, work promotion, academic achievement, and you get the ritual that is Yu Sheng. A ritual in which 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 basic etiquettes. Do not start till everyone else does do. Please use a fresh pair of chopsticks. And, if the ingredients ends up all over the table after tossing, 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.
© 2016 Kuan Leong Yong