Not just a Chinese festivity, the Lunar New Year is a holiday observed in many Asian regions. Whether it is known as Losar in Tibet, Tet in Vietnam or Chinese New Year in China and beyond, we explore the various food that play a central role in this joyous celebration around the world.
It comes as no surprise that our sunny island is not the only Asian country to celebrate the spring festival with ethnic Chinese communities spread across the Asian subcontinent – from the Philippines to Tibet. And the significance of Lunar New Year staples are not limited to mere Chinese dishes, but flow beyond their geographical boundaries – with many dishes that are known as traditional food today sharing cross-cultural influences. Here, we share five new year dishes that make an appearance at every reunion dinner table wherever Lunar New Year is observed!
1. PEN CAI
This humble dish sometimes can take on its alternate Cantonese name of poon choi, which translates to ‘big bowl feast’. A simpler way to describe this new year dish could also be ‘tradition in a pot’, quite literally because of the layers and ingredients that make up the overall platter. Pen cai has its roots in Hong Kong, and still is a widely popular dish amongst the Hakka people. This dish represents unity due to the tedious preparation process that involves more than one cook. It is also said to originate from the iconic walled round villages of the city – tying it to traditional cultural values such as respect for the elderly.
At first glance the dish can resemble spring rolls or even its not-so-distant cousin the popiah, instead lumpia is another version of the same edible delight, that is enjoyed by the Filipina Chinese communities. In China, spring rolls are a traditional dish for many during new year celebrations. Since new year dishes are favoured for their symbolism and Chinese meanings, lumpia is no different as its cylindrical shape signifies a bar of gold.
3. STEAMED WHOLE FISH
The steamed fish dish is no stranger to Lunar New Year celebrations as it represents wealth. For Vietnam’s Chinese community, the new year is referred to as Tet, which is the biggest holiday in the country’s calendar. Interestingly, cooking fish is an integral part of Tet celebrations. The fish is braised for over fifteen hours in an earthen pot to signify the arrival of the spring festival. There are similarities in mythical stories too, revolving around the kitchen god from Chinese and Vietnamese beliefs. Both tales are representative of good news, with the central character being portrayed by the kitchen god. While the Chinese believe that the kitchen god returns to heaven, and reports activities of every household to other deities, the Vietnamese believe that Tet is a day to prepare a farewell for the gods on their return journey to heaven.
New year celebrations in Tibet are known as Losar. Although Tibetan people follow Buddhist beliefs; making them vegetarian. Losar, however, is celebrated with yak meat in their dumplings. This north-eastern delicacy – packed with minced meat and vegetables – is referred to as momo. The actual origins of this dish remain a speculation, but dumplings have been a part of Chinese culture since the Han dynasty. For the Chinese, dumplings are representative of ancient money which is ingots. And so, these are consumed due to their connotation to wealth.
5. CONSUMING CHICKEN
Although new year celebrations originated from China, due to the sheer size of the country, each city has their unique way of preparing food. This particular cuisine originates from Sichuan; located in the south-western region of China. Consumption of chicken-based dishes during Lunar celebrations is widely popular and often considered to be auspicious. An overarching theme of Chinese New Year is togetherness in family, and the visual presence of this dish embodies the same. Although the methods of preparation can vary across Asian countries, the two common ways are boiling or steaming the chicken. It is looked as a sign of respect for impoverished families in the past as consuming chicken was a form of luxury and served once a year, during important festivals such as the spring festival.