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.
Singaporean Chinese New Year Dishes and Snacks
- Hot Pot
- Pen Cai
- Mandarin Orange Desserts
- Chinese New Year Rice Cakes and Radish Cakes
- Melon Seeds and Groundnuts
- Chinese Zodiac Confectionery
- Longevity Noodles
- Chinese Sausages
- Barbequed Seasoned Pork Jerky
1. Hot Pot (火锅, Huo Guo)
In Singapore, Chinese-style 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 (spicy) concoctions.
Considered by many to be the perfect Chinese New Year dish for the reunion dinner*, as it involves a whole family sharing the same broth, hot pots are winter cuisine; 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. Nowadays, some restaurants even offer individual sets for solo diners.
* Reunion dinner is the all-important family dinner on Chinese New Year's Eve.
2. Pen Cai (盆菜)
Pen cai, or poon choi, is a traditional Cantonese festive meal consisting of many layers of exotic ingredients stewed in a thick, intense broth. Usually served in a basin-like pot and eaten by an entire family together, the dish is traditionally associated with Hong Kong walled villages but since the late 1990s, has 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 premium ingredients such as abalone, fish maw, dried oysters, etc, pen cai is, notably, not cheap. 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, pen cai is among the best Singaporean Chinese festive cuisine to feast on. It is also a great chance to try different Chinese delicacies in one meal. Pen cai set meals are frequently served with all other colorful festive dishes and desserts.
3. Mandarin Orange Desserts
Mandarin oranges are traditional Chinese New Year gifts as they symbolize prosperity in Chinese culture. 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 festive mandarin orange cheesecake? Or auspicious mandarin tart? How about a milk chocolate bar with refreshing mandarin orange filling? The list goes on and on.
Such colorful creations are unique to the Chinese New Year period too. Not that there aren’t any mandarin orange desserts in Singapore outside of the spring festival period, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any with auspicious festive decorations.
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. Some Singaporean Chinese restaurants also offer a pair of mandarin oranges to each dining group at the end of a Lunar New Year set meal, as a gesture of goodwill and appreciation.
4. Chinese New Year Rice Cakes (年糕 , Nian Gao) and Radish Cakes (萝卜糕, Luobo 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 topmost picture above, i.e., steamed with brown sugar and wrapped in lotus leaves. Apart from this, there are also more modern versions, such as white coconut-flavored ones.
In recent years, many Singaporean gourmet confectioneries have featured elaborate nian gao in the shape of Chinese auspicious animals. A very popular version is that of the graceful carp.
As for the symbolism of eating nian gao, “nian" means year while "gao" has the same sound as "tall" or "high." Paired together, the name implies a soaring, fantastic new year. There is also a folktale on how glutinous rice cakes came to be associated with the new year, one that involves the legendary general Wu Zixu (伍子胥).
For travelers, no worries about how to prepare this sticky and sweet festive cake too. Many Chinese restaurants serve nian gao as dessert during the traditional 15-day period of the spring festival.
And before finishing your meal with nian gao, you can enjoy some steamed/fried radish cake, which is savory and pudding-like. A classic dim sum dish that’s served all year long, radish cake is especially popular during the Chinese New Year season because its alternate dialect names of cai tou gao or choi tau gow is synonymous with the Chinese word for “a token of good luck.”
During the festive season, leading Chinese restaurants will often feature special versions of their radish cake dim sum too.
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 and one that symbolizes fertility, 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 for any family gathering. 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 2022, golden tigers were the stars, with their signature strips used as decorative motifs. For 2023, fluffy and oh-so-adorable rabbits take centerstage.
Or, the entire Chinese zodiac could be showcased, as in the picture above.
Adorable and festive for adults and kids alike, these pastry creations are a delight to check out. But make sure you don’t swoon over any too much, though, you might not bear to eat any later.
These adorable snacks are also eaten or given away without much symbolism. In other words, they are simply enjoyed for their association with the New Year.
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.
As for the New Year, many Chinese restaurants 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, you wouldn’t be excluded 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 will be blessed with 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, 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 above. Don’t you agree that such displays provide truly unique photographic opportunities for locals and tourists alike?
9. Barbequed Seasoned Pork Jerky (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, with a texture and smoky taste akin to jerky, 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. They also do not have any cultural association with the spring festival apart from an old Fujian practice of preserving meat for the New Year.
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. Yusheng (鱼生)
Yusheng, or “raw fish,” originated in Malaysia and is an elaborate dish consisting of freshly sliced uncooked fish served with many condiments and sauces. Once tossed, each mouthful is tangy, refreshing, and only just slightly fishy—much akin to an elaborate western salad.
Always the first dish to be served during Chinese New Year meals, the server presents the platter while reciting auspicious phrases. Thereafter, everybody at the table tosses the ingredients together using chopsticks. Often, the ritual gets very boisterous.
Both the name of the dish and the act of tossing are symbolic too. Yusheng in Mandarin and Chinese dialects 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, the tossing is also called lou hei, with the phrase translating to “career success.” To all these, add aspirations for luck, fortune, prosperity, work promotion, and academic achievement, and you get the lively ritual that is Singaporean yusheng.
The short of it is that no Chinese New Year celebration in Singapore is ever complete without a decent lou hei, for families and business people alike.
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 Singapore 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