Food is a big part of any celebration, and the Lunar New Year is no exception. Dishes served during the festival are loaded with symbolism, and often wish for good luck, wealth, fortune or success. The reunion dinner on the eve of the celebrations is especially grand, characterised by a delectable spread. Here are five of the must-eat dishes to usher in the Lunar New Year.
Also known as lo hei in the Cantonese dialect, yee sang has roots in China, but is now almost always associated with Chinese communities in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, where it was popularised as a Lunar New Year dish in the 1960s. Yee sang means ‘raw fish’, but also sounds like ‘increasing in abundance’, hence symbolising abundance and prosperity. A salad of sorts, it is usually made up of raw slices of fish such as salmon or jellyfish, mixed with shredded vegetables pickled radishes and carrots, onion and ginger slices, crushed peanuts and crunchy fried flour condiments. Before tossing the ingredients together, a thick, gooey plum sauce is added. The tossing ceremony involves diners and their chopsticks ‘raising’ the mix as high as possible – a somewhat messy affair – while saying well wishes for the new year.
Literally ‘long life noodles’, changshou mian are egg noodles made from wheat flour, served in a broth or stir-fried, and spruced up with various ingredients, such as chicken, mushrooms and vegetables. The long, unbroken strands of noodles symbolise a long and happy life, making them popular for birthdays as well as important celebrations like the Lunar New Year. The noodles should be left uncut and if possible, eaten in one slurp without breaking the strand.
Fish is a central figure at any Lunar New Year meal, owing to the word being a homophone for abundance. Traditionally, it was also expensive and difficult to come by for many households. During the Lunar New Year, fish dishes should be served whole to symbolise togetherness and unity, which means that it is steamed, eyeballs and all, before being drenched in sauces. If fish is served on the eve of the celebrations, it should be deliberately left unfinished, as the term leftover fish resonates with ‘a surplus of abundance’.
Nian gao, or ‘sticky cake’, are chewy, glutinous rice cakes: a must-have for the Lunar New Year celebrations. The term nian gao is identical in sound to ‘year’ and ‘tall’, symbolising that one should ‘raise’ themselves or be better for the year to come. Traditionally, according to Chinese belief, the cake was given as an offering to the Kitchen God, as the sticky texture would prevent him from badmouthing the human family in front of the Jade Emperor. Preparation of the dish varies from place to place. For example, the Cantonese version in Hong Kong and Guangdong province is sweetened with brown sugar, whereas in parts like Shanghai, they are meant to be savoury and stir-fried with meat. The Malaysian Chinese people eat it fried, sandwiched between pieces of sweet potato or taro.
Black Sea Moss
If you see a clump of ‘hair’ on a dish at the reunion dinner, fret not – it’s probably fatt choy, or black sea moss. The name means ‘hair vegetable’, owing to its fine soft texture and its hair-like appearance. Since it sounds similar to the word for prosperity in Cantonese, it is often used as an ingredient for Lunar New Year dishes, paired with mushrooms, sea cucumber or dried oysters. The latter is an especially good pairing because it is a homophone for ‘good tidings’.