Dozens of participants watched curiously when a waiter put down a plate of a brown jelly-like substance during a food tasting event to welcome Chinese New Year at Ciputra Mall in West Jakarta on Friday.
"This is haisom [sea cucumber], a rare delicacy of the Chinese New Year," said the Indonesian Chinese Peranakan Association's Chinese food culinary expert, Aji Chen Bromokusumo.
Aji said sea cucumber was very expensive and difficult to find in the market, therefore it was not a daily dish. "The dish symbolizes abundant fortune and tenacity," he said.
The price of sea cucumber can reach Rp 1 million (S$110) per kilogram.
Aji said another famous dish during the Lunar New Year, which will fall on Feb. 19 this year, was hipio soup. The soup is made of pungent fish maw, which is deep-fried and then soaked in water before cooking. The type of fish used is usually big snapper.
"It symbolizes resilience and tenacity in facing the difficult times in life, including regarding business, work or study," he said.
Aji said besides using fish maw, some people also used shark fins. "Because shark fins are expensive and hard to find, people prefer using fish maw or artificial shark fins," he said.
Many animal rights activists around the world have also protested against the consumption of shark fins as they say it endangers sharks.
Aji added that the soup also used shiitake mushrooms, which symbolized new life.
After enjoying the soup, the participants were served roasted duck. "The duck is roasted Hong Kong style," he said, adding that there was no particular meaning associated with the duck but that it was considered a delicacy.
Aji also introduced ca rebung (lucky bamboo sprouts with shrimp). "Bamboo sprout is similar to the Chinese philosophy 'bu bu gao sheng', which means that we will be more successful through time in all aspects of life like career, business and health," he said.
Besides original Chinese food, Aji also served two of the most popular dishes among Peranakan (Chinese-Indonesians who have combined both cultures) - pindang bandeng (a milky fish dish) and kue keranjang (glutinous rice cakes with brown sugar).
According to Aji, both dishes exist only in Indonesia, not in China. "Pindang bandeng represents the Chinese saying of 'nian nian you yu', which means that we hopefully get abundant wealth every year," he said.
"The use of belimbing wuluh [Averrhoa bilimbi] shows the local influence in the dish," he said.
Aji said that in China, a delicacy similar to kue keranjang is nian gao, plain unflavored steamed rice cakes shaped in a long tube.
"Because of the influence of locals, the cakes became sweet and brown because of the caramelized sugar," he said.
He added that it was called kue keranjang, literally meaning "basket cake", because people used to make it inside small bamboo baskets.
"The cake is the symbol of togetherness among family members," he said, adding that nuomi fan (Cantonese glutinous rice cakes) also represent the same meaning.
Aji explained that the term "Imlek" for Chinese New Year was only known in Indonesia. "It is derived from Hokkien language, to say yin li, which means lunar calendar," he said.
One of the guests, 67-year-old Mrs. Yos, said that since her parents were immigrants from China, they did not cook Peranakan food like pindang bandeng.
"Our favourite dishes are the sea cucumber and roast pork," she said.
Mrs. Yos said having a feast with the whole family was the main event of the New Year. "It is a family moment for us," she said.
The New Year lunch at Ciputra Mall opened a series of events welcoming the Year of the Wooden Goat. The mall will host a number of shows such as wayang potehi (Chinese wooden puppets), a lantern festival and a fashion show.
Several other malls in Jakarta, like Mal Taman Anggrek in West Jakarta, will also host events to celebrate the Lunar New Year.