Ced 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 great Chinese New Year foods and snacks 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 also 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 traditionally 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, given the affordability of modern air conditioning, this is no longer an issue. Of note, outside of the spring festival, steamboat or hot pot is served by many Singaporean restaurants all year long. Some restaurants even offer individual sets for solo diners.
2. Pen Cai 盆菜 (Pen Cai)
Pen Cai, or poon choi, is a traditional Cantonese festive meal consisting of many layers of exotic ingredients. Usually served in a basin-like pot and eaten by an entire family together, the dish is particularly associated with Hong Kong. Since the late 1990s, it has also gained many fans in Singapore. Today, many, many restaurants in Singapore offer pen cai as the “star” dish in Chinese new year dining sets.
With ingredients such as abalone, fish maw, dried oysters, etc, pen cai is, notably, not a cheap dish. A bowl/basin for six usually costs over 300 Singaporean dollars. More, if prepared by a renowned restaurant.
That said, if you have the budget and dining companions to enjoy one, this is considered among the best in Singaporean Chinese festive cuisine. It is also a great chance to try different Chinese delicacies in one meal. Best of all, pen cai set meals are always served with other festive dishes and desserts, to ensure you get the complete holiday experience.
3. Mandarins Orange Desserts
Mandarin oranges are traditional Chinese New Year gifts as they represent prosperity to the Chinese. In recent years, they have also evolved into a new culinary tradition, in the form of confectionery, desserts, or sweets with Mandarin orange flavors.
Care to try a Mandarin cheesecake? Or Mandarin tart? Or milk chocolate with refreshing mandarin orange filling? The list goes on and on.
To ensure the festive “feel,” such creations are usually only sold during the Chinese New Year period too. Actually, you’d be quite hard-pressed to find any in other months.
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Lastly, the fruit itself is a delight to enjoy. Bursting with tangy aroma and juice, you will appreciate its refreshing taste, after a full day underneath the Singaporean sun.
4. 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.
For visitors to Singapore, you also do not have to worry about preparing the dish yourself. Many will Chinese restaurants serve nian gao as dessert during the traditional 15-day period of the Chinese New Year.
5. 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 often given away as festive gifts too.
6. Chinese Zodiac Confectionery
If you’ve ever attended any Chinese New Year celebration, you’d know the Chinese Zodiac plays a heavy part in decorations or performances. The “incoming animal” is always given the full limelight.
In Singapore, confectionery outlets thus devote January to creating unique buns, cakes, and desserts based on the incoming zodiac animal. For example, in 2021, many cakes were decorated with adorable cows. For 2022, golden tigers were the stars, with their signature strips also used as decorative motifs.
Or, the entire zodiac could be showcased. As like the picture above.
Adorable and festive for adults and kids alike, these creations are a delight to check out. Just make sure you don’t swoon over any too much, though. You might not bear to eat any later.
7. Longevity Noodles 寿面 (Shou Mian)
Singaporean Chinese eat noodles during many festive celebrations, not just during the spring festival period. This stems not from any phonetic resemblance to good luck words but because the longish shape of noodles symbolizes longevity in Chinese culture.
For example, during birthday banquets, noodles (rather than rice) are served before dessert.
Coming back to New Year, many Chinese restaurants will serve special noodle dishes meant for groups during the festive season. Typically, such dishes will include lots of festive ingredients such as la chang (see below).
If you’re traveling alone, fret not too. Just head to any Chinese ramen restaurant and order a bowl for yourself. In Chinese culture, as long as you consume some form of noodle during the spring holiday, you can be assured of health and well-being for one whole year.
8. 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 too, 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. An example of the former is Cantonese-style steamed glutinous rice.
At Singapore’s Chinatown Chinese New Year bazaar, they are often displayed as shown in the above photo. You’d agree that such displays provide truly unique photographic opportunities for locals and tourists alike?
9. Barbequed Seasoned Pork 肉干 (Rou Gan)
In Singapore, rou gan, or bwa kwa, is a Chinese New Year institution. Some Singaporean Chinese even 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, on the other hand, 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, so to speak, 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.
Notably, the name of the dish and the act of tossing are equal in symbolism. Yu sheng in Mandarin 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 called 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.
Appendix: Traditional Chinese New Year Snacks in Singapore
This list omits classic Singaporean Chinese New Year snacks and cookies; it’s assumed that you would at least try some of these goodies when visiting the country before and during the spring festival.
And if you’re completely unfamiliar, or baffled by the often weird names, here’s a quick guide to some of the most common snacks.
© 2016 Ced Yong