Saturday, January 21, 2012

Chinese New Year food and their significance

Food plays a significant role in any festive celebration. It is no different for Chinese New Year where food is the excuse for families and friends getting together, sometimes.

During the festive Chinese New Year, it is not uncommon this gathering for a meal could happen to the tune of every night at some restaurant or other. This is one time in a year where caution is thrown to the wind where weight-watching is concerned and at the end of it all, a simple meal of plain blanched vegetable in garlic oil and oyster sauce is a much- welcome dish on the dinner table.

In recent years, the trend has shifted from families cooking and eating in less, to families eating out more. Restaurants serving Chinese food this time of the year are doing a brisk business with every table taken up nightly from the eve of Chinese New Year (for the customary family reunion dinner) right up to the last day of the festival, i.e., the 15th day, Chap Goh Meh.

We see another trend emerging at the same time. Buffet dinners are becoming popular vis-a-vis sit-down dinners. The former is favored as buffet dinners allow for more freedom to choose the food one enjoys. Personally, I much prefer a sit-down dinner for the family reunion dinner. This allows for everyone to be seated at the same time for togetherness and better interaction. Isn't that the point of a reunion?

Food served during Chinese New Year varies from everyday food. So what is special about food served during Chinese New Year?

The menu for a meal normally starts with this dish, the Yee Sang.
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This is a typical starter dish during a Chinese New Year meal, one that makes an appearance only during this time of the lunar year.

Yee Sang is a salad dish comprising various shredded vegetables each with a significance. Oil, pepper, five-spice powder, roasted sesame seeds together with plum sauce and lemon juice are added for flavor. Topping the dish are thinly-sliced pieces of fresh fish which gives this dish its significance.

Fresh fish signifies prosperity and abundance, enough to spill over every year. Instead of fish, other selections include vegetarian, jellyfish and Shredded Roasted Duck; Prawn and Salmon; Shredded Abalone and Salmon. All in, this dish comprises 27 different ingredients each with its individual symbolism including the oil that is poured out, circling the ingredients and encouraging money to flow in from all directions.

No Chinese New Year meal is complete without the Yee Sang tossing for a better year ahead. Chopsticks are used in the tossing in which every diner actively takes part. It can be a fun activity with everyone chipping in on what he/she wishes for for the coming new year ranging from a good salary increment to a fat bonus to promotion to striking a lottery to better health, better exam results, getting a better boss, a good husband, etc.

Other symbolic dishes served include prawns: Steamed Freshwater Prawn with Garlic and Glass Noodle. Prawns symbolize energy and liveliness.
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Delightful combination: Braised Sea Cucumber and Brocolli with Stuffed Beancurd and Dry Scallops.
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A set meal can be from 8 to 10 dishes. Other symbolic dishes may include

- BBQ Suckling Pig with Roast Chicken in Salad Sauce
- Braised Sliced Abalone with Dry Oyster and Sea Moss
- Baked Drunken Village Chicken
- Braised Eight Headed Abalone with Black Moss
- Dried Oyster and Cabbage
- Steamed Estuary Garoupa with Shredded Ginger

and the list goes on, each dish comes with an auspicious name and meaning.

Desserts also come with special meanings. Topping the list is Nian Gao, a sweet glutinous rice cake either pan-fried or steamed coated with dessicated coconut.

Mandarin oranges and tangerines are a staple fruit during Chinese New Year. They symbolize gold, wealth and good fortune. In Cantonese, 'orange' and 'gold' have the same sound though they are written differently.

More information available here on Chinese New Year food and their significance.


  1. To me what is so interesting about Chinese people when it comes to gathering and eating at one big table is that they would place a big plate or bowl of food served to eat and would take them using their chopsticks hehehe. Just like in that photo in the middle.

    BTW, I just learned something from reading this post, that "Mandarin oranges and tangerines are a staple fruit during Chinese New Year. They symbolize gold, wealth and good fortune. In Cantonese, 'orange' and 'gold' have the same sound though they are written differently."

    No wonder so many mini oranges trees placed out side as decorations

  2. there are just too many auspicious dishes that originates from the tradition as well as those "created" by innovative cook.. sometimes i do not know the story behind but since it's a tradition, we just follow.. but i guess "yee sang" is just available in MY/SG and nowhere else..

  3. I'm having a blast eating mandarin oranges! ;)

  4. Somehow Bananaz not so likey CNY food at home with too much meat, only vege is the cucumber and 'sung choy'. Lupp the 8-10 dishes in restaurant but will cost a lot more during CNY. Even hawker stalls also seizing the opportunity to increase their price during CNY.

  5. I'm a day early - New Year itself is tomorrow, isn't it? - but Happy Chinese New Year, HappySurfer!

    PS: The food looks gorgeous. Enjoy it on my behalf, too! ;)

  6. Rad, it's customs like this that keep traditions alive. Chopsticks signify togetherness and they are to be used together, as a pair, never alone.

    Yes, oranges are a necessity during Chinese New Year and it is customary to present oranges (the very least) when we go visiting.

  7. SK, everything has to sound just right for the new year, eh?

    About that Yee Sang being just available in Malaysia and Singapore, I believe it is true. My colleagues from overseas love to visit Malaysia during the Chinese New Year and always look forward to this Yee Sang dish.

  8. Lina, eat away! But a word of caution though.. not in excess because these oranges can give you a bad cough and/or a sort throat. Drink plenty of water.

  9. Bananaz, "Lupp the 8-10 dishes in restaurant" LOL.. this I can identify with. Oops!

    Ridiculous about the hawker increasing prices and unlike the restuarants, prices at hawkers don't come down!

  10. Rurousha, not a problem, greetings are never too early. Thank you very much!

    I certainly will.. hehe..

  11. Happy Chinese New Year~~ wishing you to have a wonderful Dragon Year~~~ XD

    Regards, (A Growing Teenager Diary) ..