What comes to mind when you check the calendar and realise Chinese New Year is just around the corner? Do you imagine lion dance troops executing gravity-defying moves before a captivated, cheering audience accompanied by the clashing of drums and cymbals? Or do you see excited children tearing open red ang pau packets as firecrackers go off in the distance? If you’re a true Malaysian food lover, your first thoughts probably will go to the myriad of sedap dishes that make an appearance during Chinese New Year festivities. Join us as we recap some of our favourite foods of the festive season!
No Chinese New Year celebration in Malaysia would be complete without the iconic yee sang or “prosperity toss”. The uninitiated, however, may be surprised to learn that the yee sang actually isn’t part of Chinese New Year celebrations in China. The origins of the yee sang are a hot topic of debate, with some claiming that its birthplace is actually Seremban, while others point further south (and stoke the flames of age old rivalry), by saying that this classic dish was a novel Singaporean invention.
Conflicting origin tales aside, it’s easy to understand why yee sangs are so popular and have earned a top tiered spot in local Chinese New Year celebrations. To begin with, they’re visually stunning. Artfully arranged on a circular plate, the key ingredients (comprising delicate strands of raw vegetables like carrot, jicama and white radish, as well as golden crackers and sesame seeds), orbit a bouquet of sashimi-style salmon, drawing you into its very own gastronomic universe. As hinted by the dish’s name, each ingredient in the yee sang cosmos symbolises blessings for the new year such as wealth, happiness and health. Tossing the yee sang are often raucous affairs, as family members and friends gather with chopsticks to raise and throw the ingredients high up in the air while calling out their wishes for the new year.
Another popular food that’s synonymous with Chinese New Year are mandarin oranges. The juicy, plush fruits are popular during the festive season as they symbolise abundance, wealth and good fortune. Their distinct orange hue is thought to resemble the glow of golden inglots; when you peel into a mandarin orange during Chinese New Year festivities, you’re also welcoming financial success and prosperity into your life. After all, who doesn’t love the idea of a quick and easy way to gain greater wealth?
Amidst the excited chatter of relatives and friends catching up, you’re bound to come across yet another Chinese New Year staple — pineapple jam tarts. Desserts are served during Chinese New Year festivities as sweet delights are believed to play a vital role in ushering happiness into your life. If you’re wondering why pineapple jam tarts have become family favourites, allow us to give you a crash course on Chinese linguistics. In the Hokkien dialect, pineapples are known as “ong lai”, which can also be interpreted as “good fortune comes”. Therefore, incorporating pineapple jam tarts into the festivities are considered a great way to bring in joy and wealth.
The nian gao is a quintessential Chinese New Year dessert that holds a special place in the hearts of many too. Despite its simple ingredients of just glutinous rice flour, sugar and water, this sweet, sticky rice cake can pose a challenge to even the most seasoned kitchen warrior — it often requires between 10 to 12 hours of steaming.
Similar to pineapple jam tarts, the importance of nian gaos lie in their name too. Read as “higher year”, eating this sugared treat is thought to elevate your potential, enabling you exceed expectations and surpass the achievements of your last year. There’s a slightly more subversive factor behind this sticky dessert’s enduring popularity too. Nian gaos are often offered at the altar of the Kitchen God in an effort to seal his lips, hence preventing the deity from providing an accurate report of the family to the Jade Emperor. As a result of partaking in nian gao, the Kitchen God is unable to inform the Jade Emperor of any fighting and bickering, hence painting the family in good light.
Like many Malaysian festivals, Chinese New Year offers us a chance to partake in delicious food while reigniting kinship with one another. Furthermore, the fantastic food that accompanies the celebrations are steeped in history and customs, showcasing a perfect harmony of the people and the times.