10 Yummy Chinese New Year Foods to Try in Singapore
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 foods to enjoy, should you be visiting the island country during the holiday season (January and February).
1. Hot Pot 火锅 (Huo Guo)
In Singapore, hot pot is known as "steamboat," and it is very similar to the versions served in China. Consisting of a big pot of steaming broth, each diner cooks his or her own share of the meal by dipping ingredients such as fish, vegetables, or meat into the broth. (The broth 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 many sharing the same broth, steamboat is essentially also a winter dish, as it is always freezing cold in China on Chinese New Year's Eve. This makes the dish somewhat unsuitable for tropical regions of yore. However, this is no longer an issue, 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 right half of the Chinese character for "fruit" is also the character for "good fortune." At the same time, most Chinese dialect pronunciations for mandarins are also similar to that for luck. Lastly, mandarins strongly resemble gold and are pleasant to smell. They are an easy and refreshing snack, 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, 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 featured elaborate nian gao in the shape of Chinese auspicious animals. A very popular version is that of graceful carp.
As for the reason for eating nian gao, this is largely due to the sound of the name. "Nian" means year, while "gao" has the same sound as "tall" or "high." Paired together, it 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 both auspicious and pleasing.
4. Melon Seeds 瓜子 (Gua Zi)
House visits are imperative during Chinese New Year, with hosts also 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.
5. Festive Fish Dishes 鱼 (Yu)
Like the case for mandarin oranges or rice cakes, fish is eaten during Chinese New Year because of the pronunciation of its name. The Chinese word for fish is yu, which has the same sound as the word for abundance. Correspondingly, fish dishes served during Chinese New Year are given elaborate titles such as 年年有余 (nian nian you yu), which means plentiful abundance each year. In short, no Chinese New Year banquet is ever complete without a fish dish, usually a freshly steamed one served whole. Because of the connotation, fish dishes are also immensely popular with business people during festive luncheons. After all, which businessman wouldn’t want a plentiful year?
6. Longevity Noodles 寿面 (Shou Mian)
Chinese eat noodles during many celebrations, not just the New Year. This is not because of 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, in replacement of rice, are usually served before dessert. When used as a Chinese New Year dish, noodles could be cooked by a host for visiting family members and friends. Or it could be served as one of the final raw ingredients during steamboat gatherings.
7. Chinese Sausages 腊肠 (La Chang)
China produces many types of sausages, but the most famous and popular ones are 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 celebrations. Savory and rich in taste, la chang/lup cheong are either used as an enhancing ingredient in cooking, or served as a dish itself. Lastly, at Chinese New Year bazaars, they would often be displayed as shown in the picture above. You’d agree that such displays provide for truly unique photographic opportunities for visitors and tourists.
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, often full of auspicious words, makes piles of the jellies perfect for festive decorations, too.
9. Barbequed Seasoned Pork 肉干 (Rou Gan)
In Singapore, rou gan is a Chinese New Year institution, to the extent that some Singaporean Chinese consider it the one must-have Chinese New Year dish. At popular outlets, festive shoppers could queue for hours just to buy one box. In the Chinatown area of Singapore, it is 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 travel souvenirs. These make the long queues before Chinese New Year rather inexplicable. But perhaps it’s because the queuing process has evolved into a ritual that is part of the Singapore Chinese New Year festive feel.
10. Yu Sheng 鱼生 (Yu Sheng)
Yu sheng, which simply means raw fish, originated in Malaysia. It is an elaborate dish consisting of freshly sliced raw fish served with many condiments and sauces. Always the first dish to be served during a Chinese New Year banquet, 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 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 means 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. For Chinese business people in the region, no Chinese New Year celebration is ever complete without a decent lou hei.
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© 2016 Kuan Leong Yong