The Lunar New Year is a time for family, festivities – and feasting! It’s no surprise that food plays such a central role part in the celebrations, especially when there’s so much to indulge in with your loved ones.
You may savour the usual delicacies during the Lunar New Year, but do you know the auspicious meanings behind these dishes and their ingredients? Here’s a look at some of them, and ‘huat’ they – or their ingredients – symbolize!
Yu Sheng (鱼生 yú sheng)
Yee sang, yu sheng, lo hei… all these names tie back to this staple at every Lunar New Year reunion dinner! From vegetables to each condiment, each ingredient in this ‘prosperity toss’ has an auspicious phrase (or吉祥话 jí xiáng huà) to be recited as it is laid out on the plate.
For example, 鸿运当头 (hóng yùn dāng tóu) is said when placing the carrots, meaning ‘may good fortune shine down on you’, while saying 年年有余 (nián nián yǒu yú) when adding in raw fish slices means ‘may you experience abundance throughout the year’. If you’d like to attract more wealth this year, be sure to say 招财进宝 (zhāo cái jìn bǎo) extra loudly when adding in the pepper and five-spice powder.
Need help with other auspicious phrases as you prepare each ingredient? We’ve got it covered in our handy Singaporean Lo Hei Guide.
Aside from being tossed in yu sheng, fish is also enjoyed on its own during the festive season. The Chinese word for ‘fish’ (鱼- yú) is a homophone (a similar-sounding word with a different meaning) for the word ‘profit’ or ‘surplus’ (余- yú), which is why fish dishes – such as steamed fish – is served during the Lunar New Year. It is also customary to serve the fish in its entirety (complete with head and tail), as this signifies an auspicious year ahead. So, saying 年年有余 (nián nián yǒu yú) isn’t just a wish for an abundance of fish!
Pen Cai (盆菜 pén cài)
Talk about a feast in a bowl – or a claypot! The origins of pen cai (loosely translated as ‘big bowl feast’) dates back to the late Song Dynasty, when locals around Guangdong Province brought their best ingredients together to serve the Emperor and his army. And the best of ingredients they are - today, this pot of culinary treasures continues to be popular at Lunar New Year reunion dinners because of the delectable variety of meat, seafood and vegetable ingredients. Each ingredient has its own significance, with some favourites including abalone, which represents good fortune; fatt choy (髮菜 fà cài) or ‘black moss’, representing wealth in abundance; dried oyster, representing a prosperous business; and prawns, representing freshness and liveliness.
Eight Treasures Lotus Leaf Rice
Lotus leaf rice is a dish that can typically be found on the menu at dim sum restaurants. Glutinous rice and ingredients like mushroom and Chinese sausage are wrapped and steamed in dried lotus leaves, which gives the rice its fragrant, earthy flavour.
This dish can be given a prosperous twist for the Lunar New Year, by adding your own variation of ‘eight treasures’ (八宝 - bābǎo) ingredients, such as gingko nuts (which represent silver) and lotus seeds (which represent abundance).
Find out how to cook a pot of Eight Treasures Lotus Leaf Rice here.
This citrus fruit has a strong association with the Lunar New Year, as its Hokkien and Cantonese term (柑- kam/gam) is a homophone for ‘gold’. It is also customary to bring at least two mandarin oranges on your visiting rounds to exchange with the host, or the head of the household, as a greeting of good fortune for the new year.
The trusty pineapple tarts, with its buttery crust and candied fruit filling, is a representation of luck and fortune. This is particularly so since the dialect name for pineapple (‘ong lai’) means ‘prosperity has arrived’ – and also why some families hang lanterns or decorations in the shape of pineapples outside their house.
Fried Nian Gao (年糕)
Sweeten your meal and the year ahead by eating nian gao, another festive delicacy enjoyed during the Lunar New Year. Its Chinese name is a homophone for ‘年高’ (nián gāo), which literally means ‘a year higher’ – in other words, to achieve greater heights in all endeavours this new year. While this sweet and sticky rice cake can be eaten after steaming or boiling in soup, it can also be dipped in egg batter, pan-fried and enjoyed as a tasty, savoury snack.
Lunar New Year Goodies Platter
No Lunar New Year’s visiting is ever complete without sampling all the goodies laid out for guests to enjoy! Whether you crave savoury snacks like bak kwa or have a sweet tooth for confectioneries like ‘love letters’, there’s something delicious and auspicious for everyone on every goodie platter.
These goodies each have their respective significances and best wishes for the year ahead. For example, the neatly wrapped mini prawn rolls has elongated shape that resemble gold bars; crunchy cashew nuts look like gold ingots; and the sweet and crumbly kueh bangkit is moulded into shapes like flowers and fish, with each representing prosperity and fortune.
From all of us at OSU, we wish you a happy, healthy and harmonious Lunar New Year. HUAT AH!