What to eat to celebrate Lunar New Year
By Lee Tran Lam
As people celebrate the Lunar New Year, they’ll also be eating dishes that have great cultural significance. They’ll be launching prosperity toss salads for good luck, or giving away oranges and displaying them around the house. Chinese families will gather to make dumplings, as an act of togetherness. In Malaysia, people hand out kuih bahulu, a madeleine-like sweet that’s shaped like fish to bring on abundance. Koreans might savour sikhye, a sweet rice drink, at the end of a feast. In Vietnam, a boiled chicken is presented to ancestors during Tet as an offering that ushers in prosperity. Many foods have a deeper meaning beyond keeping loved ones well fed – here are dishes that play an important role at family tables and restaurant banquets during Lunar New Year.
Extra-long noodles are a welcome sight at Chinese New Year feasts. Known as longevity noodles, their stretchy strands are meant to represent a life that spans many years – just take care not to cut them short! For seollal (Korean New Year), noodles are also a part of celebrations, with people twirling their chopsticks around japchae (glass noodles), a dish first created for a 17th century royal banquet.
In Vietnam, wrapping square parcels of banh chung in banana leaves is part of Lunar New Year rituals. They’re not just a way to show respect for your ancestors, they represent the wide-ranging ways rice cakes are part of holiday festivities around the world. In China, nian gao symbolise growth, longevity, career success and improved income – because the name for this sticky rice cake sounds like “higher year”. For Koreans, rice cakes make repeat appearances during seollal: they’re cooked as a soup, stir-fried or served as sweets for the occasion. Because they’re shaped like coins, they’re symbols of good fortune.
It’s a Chinese tradition to enjoy spring pancakes during this occasion – the thin, tortilla-like dish is consumed to take a ‘bite out of’ or welcome spring (which is the start of Lunar New Year in the northern hemisphere). For seollal festivities, Koreans prepare and eat jeon (savoury pancakes) as part of their ancestor-worshipping rituals.
Why do prawns symbolise happiness during Chinese Lunar New Year feasts? It’s because the Cantonese word for the crustacean (“har”) is similar to the sound of laughter, so eating them is said to bring joyous times for the coming year. Serving prawns whole – head and tail intact – is meant to spell a good beginning and end, or sense of completion. For Vietnamese celebrations, dried prawns are served with pickled leeks.
Peanut biscuits can be found far beyond China during the new year period: people from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore also savour these nutty sweets. The key ingredient is especially symbolic in Chinese culture: peanuts are also known as ‘longevity nuts’ and eating them is said to lead to fortune and vitality.
The Chinese believe pork is an emblem of good wealth, so feasting on this meat during Lunar New Year banquets signifies a prosperous life. Galbi jjim (braised ribs, often made with pork) is a comfort food that’s popular on Korean New Year menus, while a rich dish of caramelised pork with hard-boiled eggs is a feature of Vietnamese Tet celebrations.