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Chinese New Year Food Traditions
"Gung Hei Fatt Choy " (Cantonese ) or "Gong Xi Fa Cai " (Mandarin), the traditional Chinese New Year greeting, means "May you have riches galore". But the Chinese don't stop at wishing for prosperity - they eat for it as well! 16 February 2018 marks the first day of the Year of the Dog, specifically the Earth Dog. This is the start of 15 days of eating and greeting, the period over which Chinese New Year is celebrated.
Chinese dialects are tonal languages. Many words have the same sound but take on different meanings when said in different tones. This form of "tonal punning" reaches an apotheosis during Chinese New Year. Festive fare at this is focused on ingredients and dishes which reference luck, prosperity and longevity.
"Nin Go": Sticky New Year pudding
Preparing for the New Year
Preparations for Chinese New Year commence long before the day. The Kitchen God is given a send off (traditional Chinese families have an altar for this divinity in the kitchen) on the 24th of the 12th month of the Lunar calendar to make his report on the household to the Jade Emperor God.
Part of the send off offerings is a sweet, sticky pudding (nin go ) made from ground glutinous rice is another Chinese New Year specialty. There are two theories behind the inclusion of this particular offering. One is that it sweetens his words when he makes his report. The other is to glue his moth so that he is incapable of dobbing your family in for the year's misdemeanours.
The pudding left to mature and harden up in the period leading up to the New Year. (It is impossible to cut or eat when fresh.) Apart from the bribery aspect, this cake symbolises climbing the ladder of success or business growth for the year. "Nin " means year whilst the Chinese word for pudding, "go " also sounds like tall or high. Over the New Year period, slices of the hardened pudding are eaten either battered and fried (sometimes with a slice of yam sandwiched between two pieces of the pudding) or steamed and served with a sprinkling of freshly grated coconut.
The days leading up the the New Year see a frenzy of preparations at home for the sumptuous feasts that will be had at home for the first few days. The festivities begins with a grand family reunion dinner on New Year's Eve, with everyone returning to the 'ancestral home' (usually the home of the oldest living generation) for this.
The various cured and air-dried pork sausages and belly strips, liver sausages, as well as pressed duck, collectively known as larp mei or waxed meats are a much loved feature on the domestic New Year tables. There's no wax involved in their preparation of this Chinese charcuterie; rather the term refers to their appearance. They are steamed and all the fats that exude in the process are carefully reserved to be mixed with steamed rice. Larp mei farn (savoury rice with waxed meats) will not do anything for your arteries but it is a total joy to eat: incredibly fragrant, rich and savoury!
Chinese New Year Gifts
Lunch on the second day of the New Year is deemed to be the "opening meal" (hoi leen farn ) of the year. Very similar foods to those served at the reunion dinner will be eaten, but always prepared fresh! "Second hand rose" doesn't cut it for launching the new year with a big bang!
Activities over the first few days revolve around visiting friends and relatives to "pai nin " (proffer new year greetings); often with gifts of red packets for children and symbolic food gifts such as: mandarins (called kum in Cantonese, which also means gold).
In Malaysia and Singapore, popular food gifts include pineapple tarts, kueh kapek (also known as love letters, these are delicate crisp wafers made with a coconut and egg batter), and bak kwa (thin pressed slices of sweet barbecued pork).
Good Business & Prosperity
One of the most important ingredients at this time is hair moss. Its Chinese name, fatt choi , also means prosperity. A greenish-black algae sold in dried form, it has no taste of its own but picks up the flavours of the sauce in which it is cooked. A traditional New Year specialty is Ho See Fatt Choi (braised dried oysters with hair moss) which means good business (ho see ) and prosperity (fatt choi ).
Religiousness does not preclude a desire for prosperity. Many lay Buddhists and Taoists who don't observe vegetarianism on a daily basis will do so on special religious or festival days. The first day (and sometimes second as well) of the New Year are one of these occasions. The vegetarian dish prepared for this period of meat abstinence, Lor Hon Chai , include ingredients such as hair moss, golden needles, lotus seed (which symbolises sons born every year: Chinese culture is strongly patriarchal) and lettuce or Chinese cabbage (for longevity).
Lettuce (sang choy ) represents liveliness (sang mang ). If you've seen the lion dance that many Chinese businesses arrange to be performed at their premises to usher in the New Year, you would have noticed that the finale of the performance involves the lion having to reach for a whole lettuce together with a red packet dangled at a fair height above the lion. The red packet (lei see or lucky money) contains the payment for the performance. When the lion finally grabs this elusive prize, it will "swallow" the red packet and proceed to rip the lettuce apart which it then tosses (or rather, "spits") over the cheering observers. Welcome any leaves that come your way!
Other essential symbolic foods
Fish and prawns are much in demand and in Asia, the prices of these escalate around New Year.
The Chinese word for fish, yu , also sounds like the Chinese word for surplus. The favoured fish is carp (lei yu ). Lei means interest or profit, reinforcing the prosperity concept.
Prawns (har ) have connotations of happiness (ha ha siew means laughter), with the extent of joy proportionate to the size of the prawns. Shrimps are definitely not on for this time of year!
Pork and chicken are the most common meats eaten by the Chinese all year round and are also used as offerings in religious rituals. Thus, they are also the meats eaten during the New Year. Roast suckling pig (or at the very least, crispy skin roast belly pork) is favoured for the festive feast. Known as chun chee (golden pig), its festive value lies in the auspicious golden red colour of the skin.
The 7th Day: Every Man's Birthday
The seventh day of the New Year is Every Man's Birthday and yu sang (literally raw fish) is eaten on this day. This is a salad comprising tissue-thin slices of raw fish, shredded vegetables and crackers with a plum dressing. The name of the dish symbolises profits and liveliness.
All diners participate in tossing the ingredients to mix with everyone using their chopsticks and lifting the ingredients high above the dish, all with enthusiastic calls of "lo hei, lo hei", a phrase that means both to mix and to stir things up (in the economic sense).
The 15th Day
Chinese New Year celebrations draw to a close on the 15th day which is the first full moon of the new year. This is also known as the Lantern Festival and traditional families hang out lanterns on this day to invite prosperity and longevity. The traditional food eaten on this day is tong yuen which are dumplings made from glutinous rice flour and filled with sweet sesame seed paste or red bean paste, served in a thin syrup. This “soup” may sometimes be spiked a touch of fresh ginger.
Lion Dance to usher in the New Year
Dining Out at Chinese New Year
Traditionally, businesses are usually closed from early on New Year's Eve - to let all their employees return to their homes for the reunion dinner - and reopen at the earliest on the fourth day of the New Year. Only then does banqueting in restaurants begin.
In the West however, pragmatic restaurant owners remain open right through this period and offer special symbolic Chinese New Year menus together with entertainment such as troupe of "lions" during the evening.
Structure and pricing of these menus reinforce the concepts of prosperity and longevity. The Cantonese word for the number eight ("part") in Cantonese is a pun on the word for prosperity ("fatt") and banquets will be priced at say, $888 or as a combination of 8 and other auspicious numbers such as 2, 3 and 9. [You will never see the number 4 - its sound is similar to that for the word "death".]
All menus will have eight main courses and are poetically structured. For example, a menu may begin with "Sei Hei Lam Moon" (Four Happiness Coming To Your Door; consisting of a mixture of four different starters), and progress through dishes such as "Wang Choi Chou Sau" (Extra Money Outside Of Your Normal Income; consisting of braised dish of black moss pig's trotter), "Lin Lin Yau Yu" (Every Year Will Have A Surplus/Profit; consisting of steamed fish) accompanied by "Kum Cheen Moon Tei" (Money All Over The Floor; consisting of stir fried shitake mushrooms and snow pea shoots).
So, give your Chinese restaurant a call and eat yourself into a year of wealth, health and happiness!
What Do You Do For Chinese New Year?
In my family, my siblings and I continue to maintain my father's tradition of hosting a reunion dinner for our extended family on the 2nd Day of New Year. We book 3 to 4 tables of 10 persons at a restaurant and of course, the menu features all the special festive dishes.
It's a wonderful opportunity to catch up for 4 generations - my aunts, cousins, their children together with their partners and/or children. After dinner, we gather at my brother's place for the "gambling session" of Black Jack. Not big stakes but very riotous, lots of laughter...and of course, more to eat!