Meaningful CNY feasting

Rife with symbolism and meaning, the feasting tables of the Chinese New Year are imbued with deep significance - from the individual ingredients used, to the dishes they go into.

In many cases, this is because many Chinese words are homophones - they sound the same but have different meanings.

For instance, glutinous rice cake or "niangao", sounds like "getting higher year by year", which denotes gaining prosperity and generally reaching new heights in life.

8 'lucky' foods people eat during CNY

  • Because the Chinese word for fish, "yu", sounds like the Chinese word for abundance. The fish is served whole to symbolise a complete year. Some believe in leaving leftovers for the next day to represent an overflow of prosperity. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • Families in China prepare them together for consumption at midnight on CNY's Eve. The dumplings are shaped like ingots, which were used as Chinese currency before the 20th century, to represent wealth. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • The Chinese name for the sweet treat, "nian gao", also sounds like "year high", so it's believed that those who eat it can achieve new heights in the new year. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • Because the Chinese character for tangerine also contains the character for luck, and the Chinese words for success and orange, "cheng", sound the same. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • Generally, long noodles represent longevity to the Chinese, who slurp them up without breaking or cutting the noodles. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • It comes with eight compartments (a number the Chinese associate with prosperity) filled with snacks for visitors to munch on. Some of the snacks have symbolic meanings. For instance, preserved kumquat stands for prosperity and dried longan represents fertility. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • Its Chinese name "you" sounds both like "again" and "to have" (albeit in a different tone), hence it is believed to bring continuous prosperity. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • Themselves named after Chinese New Year, aka "Spring Festival", spring rolls are fried to a golden brown so they look like gold bars. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • It's associated with poverty because those who couldn't afford a good meal in the past had foods like porridge for breakfast on New Year's Day. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)

Or that kids are growing taller and getting good grades!

Although we don't really need another reason to eat that lovely, sticky-gooey-chewy concoction, often sandwiched with slices of taro, battered and deep-fried.

The same goes for prawns, with their name ("har") sounding like the "ha ha ha" of laughter - everyone wants a year of merriment!

Photo: The Star

With other foods, there is also the shape of things to be considered - sometimes the shape of the food is what makes it lucky, because it invokes an auspicious meaning.

These include Chinese dumplings, or jiaozi, which symbolise wealth.

In northern China especially, they can be shaped to resemble silver ingots, curved like half-moons, and eaten on the eve of the new year.

Popular fillings include minced pork and shrimp, chicken and vegetables.

Some people even hold to the belief that the more dumplings you eat during Lunar New Year celebrations, the more money you can make in the coming year; others think that eating dumplings filled with shredded radish and cabbage during the festivities on the eve will result in fair skin and temperate moods!

Photo: The Star

Lots of pleats on the folded edges of the dumplings are good - if they're too flat, they denote poverty instead.

And apparently you should always arrange them in rows on a platter - if they are arranged in circles, it could mean that your life will follow suit, and you'll never actually get anywhere.

Food can be used to chart a culture's history - certain ingredients may be scarcer in times of economic hardship, such as with many meats, or the frequent consumption of seafood can denote a community's seaside and sea-faring roots.

Finally, there are dishes that entrench themselves into family history, carving a mark on personal tradition - in these cases, they take on several more shades of meaning. Such dishes often add another dimension of meaning to all the rest.

The feasting lasts 15 days, beginning from the Reunion Dinner on the eve of the first day of the Lunar New Year (but let's get real people, you've been tossing yee sang since mid-December, right?) right up until Chap Goh Meh - that night when single people toss oranges into seas and lakes in the hope of finding a good partner, and when families sit down for a celebratory meal and make prayers and offerings.

In that time, here are some of the auspicious dishes and ingredients you might find your chopsticks poised over, particularly here in Malaysia.

Yee sang

There's nary a New Year meal that begins without this fabulous combination of flavours, textures - and meanings.

It may have been eaten in ancient China, but today it's in Malaysia and Singapore that it is most firmly embedded as part of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

While this Teochew-style fish salad - its name "yee sang" or "yusheng", literally means "raw fish" - can be concocted of a myriad ingredients, there is some structure to the choices.

Photo: The Star

The fish itself is now usually salmon, although many versions abound, including those with jellyfish, abalone and raw tuna - for those who don't want to eat raw seafood, the smoked version is used.

There are many shredded vegetables, fruits and herbs, and each carry their own significance: green radish (eternal youth), white radish (work promotions and progress in business), carrot (good luck), and pomelo sacs (wealth).

Condiments include crushed peanuts (much silver and gold), sesame seeds (a prosperous business), and crisp crackers that denote a floor laden with gold.

The very serving of the dish is ritualistic, with greetings and wishes to be spoken at each step.

What each item on our yusheng dish represents

  • The shredded carrot adds vibrancy to the dish and indicates blessings of good luck. It can also mean that "good luck is approaching".
  • The shredded green radish symbolises eternal youth, and when one savours this dish it indicates the hopes to be youthful and vital for this festive new year. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • The shredded white radish signifies prosperity at our workplace and a work promotion. It can also signify that one can progress at a faster pace in their workplace and can reach a higher level with each step that they take.
  • The pomelo symbolises luck and smooth sailing in our daily lives. It can also indicate the addition of luck or an auspicious value to one's life.
  • The slices of salmon symbolises having things in abundance throughout the year. It is a great thing to shape one's mindset early in the year, and the raw fish is symbolic towards seeking for more. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • Pepper is dashed on to attract wealth and treasures, because who would not want an extra dash of that in our life? (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • Olive oil is poured into the yusheng dish prior to tossing, encircling all the condiments, and to encourage money to flow from all places. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • The plum sauce is the binding condiment for the dish and it is also used in this prosperity meal in hopes of a sweet life, almost as sweet as honey itself. (Photo: Shutterstock.com)
  • Sesame seeds sprinkled into the yusheng dish is symbolic of prosperity in one's business.
  • These fried crispy condiments tend to be a crowd favourite and rightfully so, for their crunchy and snack-like flavour. These signify a floor filled with gold, and that certainly does sound like a great prospect for Chinese New Year!

A platter laden with piles of these base ingredients is served first, with New Year wishes uttered at this point.

When adding the fish, people say "nian nian you yu", or a wish for abundance throughout the year.

When pepper is sprinkled over, it is in the hope of attracting wealth and having wishes fulfilled.

Then oil is poured over in a circular motion, encouraging the flow of money in from all directions - and smooth sailing for the year ahead.

The various ingredients are added one at a time, each with an ardent wish for some different positive outcome or attribute throughout the year.

And there's a sweet-ish plum sauce, to attract treasures and set the tone for a year filled with sweetness.

It's ready now, for all the diners around the table to stand and raise their chopsticks - in many contemporary Chinese restaurants, an over-sized pair just for the yee sang tossing, which you won't be using to eat with.

The diners toss the yee sang ingredients together, while once again uttering auspicious wishes.

The higher the toss, the higher your fortunes go that year - so diners are generally enthusiastic.

Fatt choy (black moss)

While it is eaten like a vegetable in Chinese cuisine (usually Cantonese), this is actually an algae that looks like black hair in its dried form (which is why its Chinese name literally means "hair vegetable"; in Vietnamese, it is tóc tiên, or "angel hair").

Real fatt choy is actually dark green rather than a true black - it's not a cheap ingredient, because supply is limited.

Because fatt choy is a homophone for having "struck it rich", this is an ingredient considered highly auspicious.

Before cooking, fatt choy is soaked and softened; it then takes on a texture like very fine (cooked) vermicelli.

Photo: The Star

It is often cooked in a braised dish along with mushrooms, dried scallops, dried oysters and sea cucumber, and garnished with broccoli.

The oysters are called "ho see", which sounds like good deeds or happenings, and the word for sea cucumber (hoi sum) sounds like "happiness" - so combining the fatt choy with either or both of these amps up the auspicous meanings.

For Traders Hotel Kuala Lumpur director of communications Theresa Goh, this is one of her favourite dishes on the New Year table.

"It's just my daughter and myself, so every year we have our reunion dinner at the house of a different dear friend, depending on whether we are in Penang or KL," she said.

"For this dish, I make a stock with pork bones and dried scallops, then add Chinese rice wine, mushrooms and dried oysters and let that simmer to get that lovely sweetness," she says.

Sea cucumber, abalone and black moss follow suit. "Lace it with a bit of sesame oil, and you've got an awesome dish!" said Goh.

Fish

The word for fish is "yu", which sounds like "surplus" - and it's always good to have a little bit extra.

So no matter what other dishes you might have on the table at Chinese New Year, a whole fish is generally one of them.

You need to serve it intact, with head and tail, because that means a good beginning and end to the year.

"With the whole fish, it signifies that every year, there is balance," said Goh. Wishes include nian nian you yu, which means "may you always have more than you need".

Photo: The Star

Sometimes, people choose to have a little of the fish dish left over, as this signifies having that little extra too.

Recipes vary - the Cantonese simply steam the fish with soy sauce, ginger and spring onions, while a favourite dish of the Teochew community is fish steamed with salted, preserved vegetables and sour plums.

The kind of fish chosen can also have its own meaning - the Chinese mud carp sounds like the word for gifts, which translates to good fortune, and catfish intensifies that idea of having surplus.

The meanings behind our CNY goodies

  • Originating from Fujian province in the days when meat was scarce, these slices of preserved pork were a luxury treat reserved for guests and special occasions. Marinated with sugar and spices before being grilled, it is also called long yoke in Cantonese, which means to have robust fortune.
  • Actually crispy egg rolls, they are said to be formerly used to convey secret notes between lovers. The recipient would eat the egg roll to show the words had been taken to heart. Its shape and colour also resemble gold bars, while the inclusion of eggs represents fertility.
  • Their appearance says it all - round in shape and orange in colour, they look like gold ingots. Even better, its Mandarin name ju sounds like ji (luck in Chinese). Thus, Mandarin oranges not only bring Vitamin C to the table, but also symbolise prosperity.
  • Often offered to guests still in the husk, they are commonly called hua sheng (flowering of life in Mandarin), offering good wishes for health and growth. They are sometimes known as chang sheng gua (nuts of longevity), as their shape promises a long, healthy life.
  • The Mandarin name for red dates is hong zao, which means prosperity comes early; while longans, a homophone for dragon's eye, represent the legendary creature's vigour. The ingredients are cooked in a sugared broth with wishes for a sweet life. Ginkgo nuts are often added as their shape represents silver ingots.
  • Seeds in general are a popular Chinese New Year snack, as they represent fertility. These include lian zi (lotus seeds), whose name means many sons. Gua zi (melon seeds) signify many sons or multiple coins.
  • With a name that means soaring to great heights in the new year, nian gao (above) traditionally comes in a round shape, symbolising reunion. Its taste also suggests a sweet life. Slices of nian gao can be steamed and eaten with desiccated coconut, or dipped in batter and fried.
  • This buttery pastry with a sugary pineapple filling is a mainstay of almost every household's ba bao he (eight treasure box). Pineapple sounds like the arrival of prosperity in several Chinese dialects (ong lai in Hokkien and wong lai in Cantonese).
  • Lunar New Year is not complete without mixing the auspicious yusheng (raw fish salad), a tradition known as lo hei (Cantonese for tossing to great heights), where auspicious sayings are called out as ingredients like raw fish slices and lime juice are added. It began as a simple raw fish salad eaten on the seventh day of Lunar New Year, a practice that early settlers from Guangdong, China, brought to Singapore. Thanks to some creative tweaking by four local Cantonese chefs in the 1960s, the tradition of lo hei yusheng has evolved into an elaborate dining must-have at every festive gathering throughout the 15 days of Chinese New Year.
  • Called yu, a homophone for surplus, this practically mandatory item should be served whole, as the head and tail represent a year of abundance from start to finish. Raw fish has become quite the ubiquitous dish, as its Chinese name yusheng sounds like an increase in abundance.
  • Called ho see in Cantonese, which means fortunate situations or events, dried oyster is usually served braised with black sea moss and dried shiitake mushrooms. Together, the dish has a name that sounds like gong xi fa cai, the common Chinese greeting that wishes someone prosperity and wealth.
  • Usually eaten raw, sheng cai is a homophone for growing wealth. Used as a wrap for braised abalone, it further implies fertility - young newlyweds are often encouraged to enjoy this. Lettuce also appears wherever there is a lion dance in action, with the lion scattering lettuce leaves to spread good luck.
  • This hair-like ingredient (fa cai in Mandarin; fatt choy in Cantonese, meaning to have a windfall) is usually served with braised dried oysters. In recent years, it has also become a part of the popular pen cai (treasure pot) when braised with other premium delicacies such as abalone.
  • Perhaps the priciest and most prized seafood in Chinese culture, abalone is called bao yu in Mandarin, which means a guaranteed surplus. Hence, it is often eaten during the season to ensure good fortune in the coming year. It is so popular that its price tends to skyrocket in the month leading up to the festival.
  • A literal translation of its Chinese name is ginseng of the sea, as sea cucumber is believed to have healing properties, not unlike the famed herbal root. Much like abalone, it serves to impress guests at dinner, while its Cantonese name sounds similar to the term for happiness, making it a must-have.
  • With a name like da suan, which sounds like the term for "big counting", it is no wonder the Chinese leek is often served to add flavour - and auspicious meaning - to other dishes. When cooked with prawns (har in Cantonese), it implies counting with laughter and, when mixed with cuttlefish (you yu in Mandarin), it means counting up an abundance.
  • Typically served during Chinese New Year feasts and at birthday celebrations for older folks, these noodles are longer than the regular versions and left uncut, as they represent the hope for a long life. Typically stir-fried with mushrooms and leek, they can also be served in a broth.

Want to really follow tradition?

On the table, the fish should be placed with its head facing the most important guests or elders - it's a sign of respect - and they would be the first to eat from it.

Chicken

Again served whole, a platter of chicken is all about prosperity, family togetherness and joy - and because it is intact, wholeness. Obviously, this being the Year of the Rooster doubles the auspicious significance of the bird!

Photo: The Star

For freelance writer Alice Yong, the New Year feast brings a dish of simple poached chicken on the table.

"In the old days, chicken was a luxury, only served for occasions and major festivals like Chinese New Year," she said.

"I remember my grandmother saying that the bird symbolises a phoenix, which is why we used it as an offering to the Chinese deities. And that's one of the reasons that my mother-in-law still prepares poached chicken for prayers at Chinese festivals, even today.

"I like the poached chicken dish because it reminds me of simpler days," said Yong. "As kids, every time the dish was served, we would know it marked an important festival in the Chinese calendar.

"Some people might find this dish a bit bland but in our family, the chicken is complemented by dark soy sauce, fried shallot oil and home-made chilli sauce - the kind you'll find at a Hainanese chicken rice shop," said Yong.

Pork

A dish made with pork is said to evoke strength, wealth and an abundance of blessings.

"There was a time that only the rich could afford to eat meat. Plus, the pig is generally quite a fat animal, and the Chinese tend to associate fat with being prosperous," said Yong. "The older folk especially would be quite horrified if the pork is too lean."

Photo: The Star

Yong's family always serves the char yoke at Chinese New Year, a dish of pork braised with black fungus which is synonymous with the Hakka community.

"This braised dish keeps well, and a little pork can go a long way when you add the fungus is added to bulk up the dish," said Yong.

It's a testament to the thrifty and industrious nature of Hakka women, according to Yong - which they take great pride in.

Hakka women have always made good use of whatever scant ingredients they have on hand to feed their families.

It's the same story for another favourite Hakka dish, pork trotters stewed in black vinegar.

"Stewing the pork in vinegar also ensures that it can keep longer," said Yong. "In the olden days, most Chinese homes didn't have refrigerators to keep left-overs in.

Abalone

Of the ingredients to grace the Lunar New Year table, the abalone is one which falls more on the luxe side of the spectrum. It also sounds like the Chinese word for fortune.

These sea snails can be bought fresh or tinned, and have a chewy texture like conch.

With a mild, naturally briny flavour, abalones tend to take on the flavour more of the stock they are cooked in.

Photo: The Star

For restaurateur-chef Isadora Chai, this is a must-have.

"My family always gets all these tins of abalone, and we hoard it and eat it during an auspicious occasion," she said. "It's not really about the significance of what it means, it's just out of habit and family tradition - when else would the old aunties actually splurge if not during Chinese New Year!"

Chai prefers the fresh abalone to the tinned though, as it is what she grew up on. "My dad was a lawyer and his clients always gave him fresh abalone. So I grew up eating it."

In Chai's family, the abalone will be braised with broccoli and fatt choy, in a master stock made of chicken and pork bones.

Noodles

The long and short of it is that all sorts of noodles represent a hope for a long life - so when cooking, never cut or break them, as this apparently symbolises cutting that life short.

In fact, there are those who believe you shouldn't cut the noodles even when eating them.

The longer the noodles are, the luckier they are considered.

Glass noodles, which are made from mung beans, have the added meaning of symbolising silver chains or threads - which may bring to mind a long-lived elderly person with silver hair!

Photo: The Star

Chef Darren Teoh is half-Chinese and half-Indian, which makes his reunion dinners a bit different.

"There is only one Chinese at our reunion dinners - my dad," he said. "The rest of my family there are from my mum's side."

This year though, there will be two Chinese at the table - Teoh got married last year.

Every year, his mother prepares her late mother-in-law's dish of glass noodles stir-fried with sliced pork, black fungus and shiitake mushrooms. But for Teoh, the dish has more than auspicious meanings.

"It's a very simple dish - we come from humble beginnings, and we appreciate small things," he said. "This dish is about my mom honouring my dad. She makes it because she knows that he misses these things about Ah Ma."

For Teoh, this is also a reminder of his mother's selflessness. "She took care of both my grandmothers at home," he said.

Tong sui

Under the tong sui umbrella fall many sweet liquids - drink-dessert soups that are usually served at the end of a meal.

Literally translated to "sugar water", they are particularly prevalent in Cantonese cuisine.

Enjoyed at the Chinese New Year, it would signify a particularly sweet time to be had by all for the coming year.

Photo: The Star

It is often cooked on the eve of the New Year, to be enjoyed on the first day.

As part of Goh's celebration, she usually makes a whole pot of this.

"It's made from dried longans, red dates, lotus seeds and white fungus - but I usually leave the last one out because I don't like it myself," she said.

In that list of auspicious ingredients, the dried longans hope that one might have a lot of sons, the lotus seeds also wish one the same, plus wealth and the red dates are all about wealth and fertility - looks like this tong sui has one thing on its mind!

"I may be a modern woman, but I like the idea of such significance, of having a good sweet start to the year," said Goh.