Text by DON BOSCO
Illustrations and recipe by SC MOEY
Photographs courtesy of THE ORIENTAL, SINGAPORE
and TUNG LOK RESTAURANTS
This succinct but rousing maxim most clearly conveys the spirit of merry feasting that is customary during the Lunar New Year. From fried noodles to steamed dumplings, fresh fish to raw fish salad, sticky cakes to lotus seeds: the festive dishes themselves are traditionally celebrated as potent symbols of everything auspicious and prosperous. Thus to tuck in is to bestow great blessings upon one and all!
So by all means proceed to eat, drink and be merry; any less effort on your part might be interpreted as an insult to your kind hosts. But commit some of the customs here to memory, so that you might present yourself as less of an enthusiastic glutton and more an aficionado of gastronomic traditions from over five thousand years of Chinese recorded history.
Fish and Chicken
Fish is an important dish during the family reunion dinner as it symbolises abundance and togetherness: the Chinese word for it, yu, sounds exactly like the word for abundance. Therefore, the fish is never fully eaten and the more careful families even try to keep the bones of the fish intact to ensure continuous fortune. Hence the seasonal greeting nian nian you yu, which more or less translates as “fish guaranteed every year to come”. Likewise, chicken needs to be presented with head and feet intact; symbolically related to the dragon and phoenix, it ensures happy marriages and family unity.
From Manhattan to Malacca, this hot, steamy ritual is itself a delicious orchestration of auspicious symbols. Family and friends gather around a bubbling pot to dip a traditional selection of meats, seafood and vegetables, each signifying something desirable. Lettuce, for instance, is believed to attract wealth and riches; prawns and oysters signify the arrival of good fortune; while black seaweed symbolises luck.
and Spring Rolls
Immensely popular, these are made with a skin rolled from dough and typically stuffed with pork or shrimp, or sometimes beef. Vegetarian dumplings are made with mushrooms, bamboo shoots and cabbage. These dumplings are moulded into little nuggets that represent old Chinese ingots. No prizes, then, if you guessed correctly that these symbolise great wealth. Spring rolls, too, are prepared in the shape of small gold bars and thus represent abundant riches.
Prominently served in long and uncut strands so as not to divide any existing good fortune, noodles also represent longevity. In fact they are so much associated with birthday celebrations that some say they serve a similar function to the candles on a birthday cake.
These translate as “New Year cakes” and consist of a variety of sweet pastries. To offer these to your hosts is to bid them nian nian gao sun, or “More success and prosperity every year”. According to customary beliefs, nian gao is offered to the Chinese Kitchen God to persuade him, on his annual visit to the heavenly court, to report favourably on the family’s deeds over the past year.
Oranges and Tangerines
To present your hosts with a pair of oranges and tangerines is to bless them with happiness and wealth, as the Cantonese word for tangerines also sounds like their word for gold. Oranges are particularly associated with ambition and success: legend has it that a Chinese Emperor ceremonially distributed oranges to his favoured court officials on the second day of the Lunar New Year.
Loaded with dried fruits, sweets, candies and cookies to welcome guests, this is sometimes referred to as the Tray of Togetherness. Traditionally its eight compartments are each filled with especially significant items including peanuts (for longevity, since they grow freely and have long roots) and various lotus and melon seeds (which represent great fertility, and hence the assurance of many descendants).
Given the special significance of fish, it is no surprise that this raw fish salad is the highlight of every Lunar New Year feast. Slices of salmon or carp are combined with other raw, crunchy and colourful ingredients (from sliced carrot to small crackers) which collectively signify a renewal of luck. Family and close friends then gather to mix the salad, and, each armed with a pair of chopsticks, energetically toss the ingredients high in the air. Meanwhile, all call out Lo hei! which can mean both “Mix it well!” and “Enjoy more and more prosperity!”
Modern variations served in restaurants today include jellyfish, papaya, pickles or even tuna.
Yu Sheng Recipe
Fresh carp is the traditional choice but you can also use salmon or even canned abalone. Be sure to use a large platter so that everyone can toss with abandon.
200 gms fresh fish (grass carp/salmon/haruan), thinly sliced
40 gms jellyfish, soaked
50 gms pomelo, pith removed and pulp broken up
30 gms pickled ginger, finely sliced
30 gms pickled leeks, finely sliced
30 gms pickled papaya, finely sliced
50 gms sweet potato, shredded
50 gms yam, shredded
80 gms white radish, shredded
80 gms carrot, shredded
3 stalks spring onions, finely sliced
1 stalk Chinese celery, finely sliced
2 red chillies, seeds removed and finely sliced
1 knob young ginger root, finely sliced
2–3 lime leaves (limau perut), finely sliced
2 packets of Yu Sheng crisps (available in supermarkets) OR deep fried cut strips of wanton/popiah skin
3 tbsp roasted peanuts
2 tbsp roasted sesame seeds
1 large lime, quartered
8 tbsp plum sauce
3 tbsp cooked oil (brown garlic in very hot oil, cool and discard garlic)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp five spice powder OR ground cinnamon
Blanch jellyfish in boiling water, drain and cut into strips.
Squeeze out juices from shredded yam and sweet potato. Add food colouring: red to one and green to the other. Dry in sun, then deep fry and set aside.
Soak white radish and carrot separately in water, drain and squeeze out juices. Set aside.
Arrange salad ingredients attractively on a large platter. Just before serving combine ingredients for sauce. Squeeze lime juice over fish, pour sauce over salad, toss and eat immediately.
Family Feasts and Facts
Tradition prescribes an even number of courses or dishes at the family reunion dinner, as multiples of two signify double blessings. Eight is an especially lucky number.
Customs vary from family to family, depending on which region in China their ancestors hailed from. Some even have charming idiosyncrasies creatively improvised and handed down over many generations.
Some families avoid tofu, since its fresh white appearance is symbolically linked to death and funeral rites.
Because lotus roots are difficult to cut up and separate completely, they are taken to symbolise lasting family attachments.
The use of knives on the first day of the Lunar New Year is frowned upon. So most families make do with the leftovers from their reunion dinner, together with some rice-flour cakes.