Those who listen to ABC Local radio will have heard me guest on Nightlife with Rod Quinn last Monday night (20th January)! It was great fun sharing my Lunar New Year know-how with such a personality. In a laidback 15mins, we talked about the various foods that are essential for this holiday, where you can find them, how easy they are to make, and more. For those of you who want even more insight, here goes:
The Lunar New Year comes around on the 31st of January this year, and although they say ‘Chinese New Year’, this is really a holiday shared by many Asian countries like Vietnam, Korea, and Malaysia, where the importance is marked by a much anticipated public holiday. The length of celebration varies from 3 days in Korea to 15 days in China, making it the longest celebration in the Chinese calendar.
So a bit of background information: the Lunar New Year has a staggered time because it runs by the traditional Asian calendar, and is a time for celebration and appreciation of friends and family. A huge part of it is the reunion dinner, where the traditional foods are vital in bringing good luck to welcome the New Year.
Let’s take a peek at 10 foods you can eat to bring you fortune!
Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dầy
A rice cake made from glutinous rice, mung bean, pork and other ingredients. Leaves are wrapped around these ingredients into the shapes of squares and circles respectively. The preparation of this food can take days, so families will often tell children the legend behind it. The ‘bánh chưng’ and ‘bánh dầy’ were created by the Sixth Prince Lang Liêu. His Father the King had decreed that the Prince who created the food that most symbolized gratitude for their ancestors and the country would win the throne. The Prince designed the square ‘bánh chưng’ to represent the Earth, and the circular ‘bánh dầy’ to represent the Sky, ultimately winning his Father’s praise and the throne.
Tip: Find this at Cabramatta Lunar New Year Festival running from Sat 1st – Sun 2nd February
A soup with sliced rice cakes, or ‘tteok’, which has a hearty, chewy bite. The broth is generally simmered with protein like beef, chicken, pork, seafood, and pheasant. Before serving, julienned cooked eggs, marinated meat, and ‘gim’ (seaweed) is added for garnish. Instead of their birthday, Koreans turn a year older with the start of the New Year and a steaming bowl of ‘tteokguk’!
Tip: Find ‘tteok’ at most Korean grocery stores and put it into your favourite soup.
This is also known as the ‘Prosperity Toss’ for its method of preparation. The dish includes a Teochew style raw fish and mixed salad that is cut into thin pieces. Everyone at the table will mix the salad together by tossing it with their chopsticks – often with lots of noise and laughter. The higher you toss the salad, the more you will prosper in the New Year!
Tip: You can use a grater to create the thin strips of vegetables instead of cutting them all up by hand! The fish can be any raw fish you like, and can easily be replaced with a vegetarian alternative.
Bite-sized pockets of dough that are filled with a range of ingredients from meat to vegetables, or often a mixture of both. These can be boiled or pan-fried for a completely different texture. Dumplings are classically served right after midnight with some garlic-soy sauce. A coin is usually hidden in one of them, and the person who finds it will be the luckiest in the New Year! Although eaten across China, dumplings are the most important New Year food in Northern China.
Niángāo (New Year Cake)
Popular in Southern China, this is a sticky, glutinous rice cake served as dessert. It originated as an offering to the Kitchen God, with the aim of sticking his mouth with the cake to prevent him bad-mouthing the family in front of the Jade Emperor – the King of Gods. The name also sounds identical to ‘higher year’ in Chinese, with the symbolism of growing through the year.
A glutinous flour ball with a sweet filling inside, served in a sweet soup. This food is a frequent metaphor for family-union, where its round shape symbolizes the family sitting around the table and eating food together.
Small round cookie balls covered in sesame. When deep-fried, they naturally crack open and greet you with big happy smiles! These smiles bring happiness to the home, and so are essential during Lunar New Year celebrations. They’re also EXTREMELY easy to make in 5 simple steps, so if you’re ready for a house of smiles, try making them here.
Chinese Steamed Sponge Cake
Steamed sponge cakes that have a higher flour content and are steamed until smiles, or cracks, form at the top. They were traditionally used to pray for good luck, and it it believed that your wishes will only be heard if the cakes smile at the Gods. These humble cakes are made with only three ingredients: egg, sugar and flour.
The well-known mandarin! The reason these are popular are because their golden colour resembles classic Chinese gold ingots and represent wealth. What’s more, the name in Chinese symbolises abundance and good fortune. Not only are they eaten, they’re frequently displayed as decorations and presented as gifts to loved ones so that they can be lucky for the New Year too.
Tray of Togetherness
A circular of octagonal shaped tray filled with an assortment of symbolic sweets including sugared fruits and vegetables. Popular sweets are candied coconut, winter melon, lotus seed, and lotus root. The trays are divided into eight compartments, as this number is popular in Chinese culture for its phonetic similarity to ‘fortune’ and so is tremendously lucky. The idea is to present guests with this tray for a sweet beginning to the Lunar New Year.
Tip: These can all generally be found at Chinese grocery stores around the Lunar New Year, and they’re so much fun to make together too!
Sydney-siders can celebrate this Lunar New Year with the City of Sydney’s Lunar Feast running from Friday 24th January – Sunday 9th February. A range of enticing menu sets will be on offer for a tantalising way to introduce yourself to these new foods and the New Year!