KL Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
In Singapore, Chinese New Year is synonymous with family gatherings, boisterous celebrations, and the enjoyment of unique, symbolism-laden gourmet delicacies. Here are 10 yummy Chinese New Year foods to enjoy, should you be visiting the island country during January and February.
1. Hot Pot 火锅 (Huo Guo)
In Singapore, Chinese hot pot is known as "steamboat," and it is very similar to the versions served in China.
Consisting mainly of a big pot of steaming broth, each diner cooks his or her share of the meal by dipping ingredients such as fish, vegetables, or meat into the broth. The broth also varies a lot—from rich chicken stock to seafood soup, to fiery hot Sichuan mala concoctions.
Considered by many to be the perfect Chinese New Year dish for family reunions, as it involves a whole family sharing the same broth, steamboat is essentially a winter dish; it is always freezing cold in China on Chinese New Year's Eve. This makes the dish somewhat unsuitable for the tropical climate of Singapore. However, this is no longer an issue in recent years, given the affordability of modern air conditioning.
2. Mandarins 桔子 (Ju Zi)
Mandarins are traditional Chinese New Year gifts as they represent prosperity to the Chinese. Foremost among the many reasons behind this belief is that the fruit resembles an attractive lump of gold.
Most Chinese dialect pronunciations for mandarins are also similar to that for luck, making the fruit doubly sought after during New Year celebrations. Lastly, mandarin oranges are pleasant to smell. They are also a refreshing snack. All these reasons make the fruit a perfect Chinese New year food, especially when surrounded by family members and close friends.
3. Chinese New Year Rice Cakes 年糕 (Nian Gao)
Chinese New Year rice cakes, or nian gao, are made from glutinous rice and sugar, with other ingredients occasionally added to enhance flavor.
In Singapore, the traditional and most popular version is shown in the picture above i.e. steamed with brown sugar and wrapped in lotus leaves. Apart from this, there are also more modern versions. For example, white coconut-flavored ones.
In recent years, many Singaporean gourmet confectioneries have even featured elaborate nian gao in the shape of Chinese auspicious animals. A very popular version is that of the graceful carp.
As for the reason for eating nian gao, "nian" means year while "gao" has the same sound as "tall" or "high." Paired together, the name implies a soaring new year. Of note, many Chinese New Year foods are eaten for the same reason. Practically all associated delicacies have names that sound auspicious or pleasing.
4. Melon Seeds 瓜子 (Gua Zi)
House visits are imperative during Chinese New Year, with hosts expected to prepare appropriate festive snacks and drinks.
Other than all sorts of cookies, nuts, and preserved fruits, melon seeds are commonly served. A relatively cheap snack in the past, melon seeds could nowadays be quite expensive, with all sorts of exotic variants imported from all over the world.
Nonetheless, they remain a hugely popular Chinese New Year snack. For some families, these addictive munchies are even considered a must-have. They are also often given away as festive gifts.
5. Festive Fish Dishes 鱼 (Yu)
Like many other traditional Chinese New Year foods, fish is eaten during Chinese New Year because of the sound of its name. The Chinese word for fish is yu (鱼), which has the same sound as the word for abundance. Correspondingly, fish dishes served during Chinese New Year are always given elaborate titles such as 年年有余 (nian nian you yu). The phrase means "plentiful abundance each year."
Correspondingly, no Chinese New Year banquet is complete without a fish dish—usually a freshly steamed fish that is served whole. For Chinese New Year business luncheons, fish dishes are considered to be even more of a must-have. After all, what business person wouldn’t want a plentiful year?
6. Longevity Noodles 寿面 (Shou Mian)
The Chinese eat noodles during many celebrations, not just during the Lunar New Year period. This stems not from any phonetic resemblance to good luck words but because the longish shape of noodles symbolizes longevity in Chinese culture.
During formal banquets and dinners, noodles (rather than rice) are typically served before dessert. Lastly, when used as ingredients for Chinese New Year dishes, noodles are typically cooked by a host for visiting family members and friends. Or they could be offered as one of the final raw ingredients during the above-mentioned steamboat gatherings.
7. Chinese Sausages 腊肠 (La Chang)
China produces many types of sausages, with the most famous and popular ones being those made in Southern China.
Known as lup cheong in the Cantonese dialect, these are the ones most commonly eaten in Singapore, especially during Chinese New Year festive celebrations. Savory and rich in taste, la chang/lup cheong is either used as a flavor-enhancing ingredient in cooking or served as a dish in itself.
At Chinese New Year bazaars, they are often displayed as shown in the above photo. You’d agree that such displays provide for truly unique photographic opportunities for locals and tourists alike?
8. Fruit Jellies 果冻 (Guo Dong)
The newest item on this list, the bulk of fruit jellies sold during the Chinese New Year festive season in Singapore originates from Taiwan, and are inspired by konnyaku, or Japanese jellies.
Available in a wide variety of flavors, often with sweet fillings too, these yummy snacks are extremely popular with children. For adults, the colorful packaging, always full of auspicious words, makes piles of the jellies perfect as festive decorations too.
9. Barbequed Seasoned Pork 肉干 (Rou Gan)
In Singapore, rou gan, or bwa kwa, is a Chinese New Year institution. Some Singaporean Chinese consider it the one must-buy Chinese New Year festive goodie.
At popular outlets, festive shoppers could queue for hours just to buy one box. Within the Chinatown district, it is also a yearly spectacle to see meandering queues patiently waiting while chefs feverishly fan their grills.
Originally square barbequed slices of seasoned pork, rou gan is nowadays also made with chicken, in addition to all sorts of spicy variants. What’s interesting to note is that these addictive snacks are actually sold throughout the year, as well as heavily promoted as a quintessential Singaporean travel souvenir.
These make the long queues before Chinese New Year rather inexplicable. But perhaps the queuing itself has evolved into a ritual that is part of the Singaporean Lunar New Year festive experience. One doesn’t feel the incoming year, without partaking in a sweaty one-hour bwa kwa queue.
10. Yu Sheng 鱼生 (Yu Sheng)
Yu sheng, which means raw fish, originated in Malaysia and is an elaborate dish consisting of freshly sliced raw fish served with many condiments and sauces.
Always the first dish to be served during Chinese New Year dinners, the server would present the platter while reciting auspicious phrases. Thereafter, everybody at the table tosses the ingredients together using chopsticks. Often, the ritual gets very boisterous.
Of note, the name of the dish and the act of tossing are equally symbolic. Yu sheng in spoken Chinese implies “the birth of abundance,” while the act of tossing the many ingredients symbolizes great achievement or “rising in the world.”
In the Cantonese dialect, this tossing is referred to as lou hei, and this doubly implies career success. To all these, add aspirations for luck, fortune, prosperity, work promotion, academic achievement, and you get the lively ritual that is Singaporean yu sheng.
The short of it, no Chinese New Year celebration in Singapore is ever complete without a decent lou hei, for families and business people alike.
© 2016 Yong Kuan Leong
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on January 23, 2018:
Please do! (Esp the bwa kwa, if you like strong tasting, meaty stuffs)
Alex Anghel from Romania on January 23, 2018:
Now I'm craving for food. I love to read about traditional food. When i have the opportunity will taste some of these.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on June 19, 2016:
I love Nian Gao. The traditional black sugar type and of late, the coconut pale type. Unfortunately, :( , I tend to get gastric and indigestion after it. Am forced to cut down. Thanks for commenting too!
Cheeky Kid from Milky Way on June 19, 2016:
My family celebrates Chinese New Year every year and we mostly eat round food. We also always eat "Tikoy (Nian Gao)"--sticky cake which is made of rice.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on June 13, 2016:
Hi AliciaC, thanks for commenting. Glad you enjoyed my writeup.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 13, 2016:
What an interesting article. I loved learning about food and celebrations that are new to me. The traditions that you describe sound very enjoyable.