The fine taste of tradition
Susan Jung discovers that Lunar New Year fare is heavy with delicious symbolism
When you think of Lunar New Year fare, you automatically think of tangerines, sweets and hairy seaweed. These are just as common in the Chinese home as are turkey, pies and fruit cake in Western homes at Christmas.
And just as you'd be hard-pressed to find a Brit, American or Aussie who could tell you why he eats those foods on December 25, the average Chinese (especially the younger generations) are unlikely to be able to explain why they eat traditional New Year offerings.
But one thing is certain - it's not a time when culinary traditions are broken. Certain foods are always eaten, although the method of preparation is left to the family cook to decide on.
Third-generation Chinese in England, the United States and South Africa still consume the same New Year fare as their cousins in China and Hong Kong. The foods are eaten for their symbolism, though frequently the original meaning has long been forgotten.
On the eve of Lunar New Year, the whole family gathers to eat tong yuen. These glutinous rice-flour balls, which should be perfectly round, symbolise perfection and the continuing cycle of life. It is believed they will unite the family and help harmonious relationships continue.
All things sweet are eaten to excess in a bid to bring sweetness in the coming year. People visiting friends and relatives bring candies and cookies as gifts. Families set out displays of sweets and chocolates, and fruit and vegetables which have been dried and candied. These are nibbled throughout the holiday period.
Oscar's restaurants head chef Lee Kin-pong said that when he was young his mother made gook jai, a sweet, deep-fried flaky pastry filled with peanuts, coconut and brown sugar.
'All the children in my family would sit down together,' he said. 'Our parents would feed us this pastry to bring good luck and sweetness to our lives in the coming year.' Most of the foods eaten at this time represent good luck and money.
Oranges and tangerines, with their green leaves attached, are prominently displayed throughout the home. Both these round orange fruits symbolise sweetness and good luck; they are also a wish for wealth, as they resemble gold coins.
Generally, round fruits - including grapefruit, apples and persimmons - are supposed to help bring the family together. Pomegranates, with their many seeds, are symbolic of fertility.
Savoury steamed-turnip pudding (loh baak goh ) is eaten to increase luck in the new year. As the pudding rises slightly during steaming, it's believed that eating it will help everything to rise - business outlook, wealth in general, children's growth, and one's position at work.
It used to be that every household made its own loh baak goh, with the odour of steaming turnips attracting flies as well as guests. It's now easier to buy them from hotels or restaurants, although they usually are not as full of goodies (dried shrimp, diced Chinese sausage and mushrooms) as the homemade equivalent.
Two sweet steamed puddings are also eaten at Lunar New Year. One is made from brown sugar and glutinous rice-flour, then topped with dried red dates.
The second is made from minced water chestnuts mixed with water chestnut flour and sugar. These are eaten in the hope that the new year will be even better than the old.
Private chef Andy Tam remembers his mother making these puddings in Canada: 'The whole house would be full of steam and we couldn't see out the windows because of all the condensation. My mother would make enough to give them away as gifts to all our friends and relatives. She thought that she had failed if she didn't make enough.' His family has lived abroad for several generations so he was surprised to discover, on moving to Hong Kong, that many of the foods his mother and grandmother cooked at Lunar New Year were similar to the fare served here.
Canadian-born Mr Tam now cooks the same dishes for his family. 'I've tried cooking other foods for Lunar New Year but I always end up going back to what I grew up on,' he explained. 'I hope that when they are grown, my children will cook the same foods that I prepare for them. The important thing during this time is tradition.' One dish is an absolute must during the Lunar New Year because it contains several auspicious foods. Faat choi jai is a savoury melange of many ingredients, including black hairy moss, lotus root and dried oysters. The name of the black hairy moss, faat choi, sounds like the words for prosperity, so eating it is thought to bring wealth.
Lotus root represents another wish for prosperity because the words for it, lin ngau, sound like the words for abundance. Dried oysters, or ho see, sounds like the Chinese words for 'good market', so eating these is supposed to bring success in business.
Abalone is a food metaphor suggesting that wealth will be replenished. The Chinese name for it means 'when you spend money, more will come'.
Fresh vegetables are important for Lunar New Year feasts. Lettuce - or saan choi - is eaten in the belief it boosts business success. Broccoli, resembling jade, is symbolic of youth.
Pork, chicken and fish represent the holy trinity of wealth, health and luck.