Chinese Food Year: some of the tastiest snacks and why we eat them

Chinese Food Year: some of the tastiest snacks and why we eat them

It's eating season, and Ariel Conant has the lowdown on the treats you'll be scoffing this Lunar New Year

Everyone knows Lunar New Year is about one thing. No, we're not talking about lai see, we're talking about the food.

We're about to start the year of the monkey, but that doesn't mean you'll be stuck eating bananas over the holidays. Most of the traditional dishes you'll see at the reunion dinner or given as gifts have special meaning and are meant to provide luck and prosperity in the coming year.

Here are three of the most common ones you'll see, and a bit of background on why they're so popular.

It's all about the money

Deep-fried pastries such as sesame balls, sesame cookies, crispy triangles and taro rosettes are popular snacks at Lunar New Year. These pastries aren't meant to fill just your tummy, but also your wallet - at least symbolically.

With their golden-brown fried crusts and crinkled edges, the pastries are designed to look like ancient Chinese money. They represent both wealth and happiness, making them common treats to start the year off right.

Crunchy peanut crescents, yau kok zai

But while everyone wants more money, you might want to be careful how many of these treats you eat. Just 100 grams of crispy triangles - seven pieces - from the Wing Wah chain contains 465 calories. That is equivalent to two bowls of rice or a quarter of the daily energy requirement for an average person.

So while you might want to fill up your wallet, don't fill up your stomach with only fried pastries unless you plan to blow your lai see on a new gym membership.

Orange is the new luck

They're already starting to pop up at flower shops and market stalls: the mandarin orange, tangerine and kumquat trees are the most commonly seen food gift during Lunar New Year.

The popularity of the oranges is partly due to the fact that the word sounds like the Cantonese word for gold.

As with the deep-fried pastries, anything associated with wealth and prosperity makes for popular gifts and snacks to start the year with.

Similarly, the word kumquat sounds like the Cantonese word for luck. It fits in nicely with the common saying wishing others good luck and good fortune - dai kut dai lai - and makes a visual pun to go along with the well-wishing.

Of the treats on this list, oranges are by far the healthiest snack. And all that good vitamin C is great for keeping seasonal illnesses from ruining the start of your new year.

Reaching new heights

Just like mooncakes at the Mid-Autumn Festival, the hot item for stores around Hong Kong is the new year puddings.

Every store and restaurant battles it out to have the newest varieties, or to have the best take on a traditional classic.

It's all about height: the name for these puddings - nian gao - sounds like "higher year". Eating these treats is supposed to raise you up to new heights each year.

Nian gao, Lunar New Year rice cake dipped in egg

The most common flavour - and the most traditional - is turnip or taro, often topped with preserved meat. Due to its sticky texture, these turnip or taro puddings were an offering to the pesky Kitchen God. The belief is that the sticky treat would seal his mouth shut so he can't gossip about your family to the Jade Emperor.

Whether you want to silence the Kitchen God or raise yourself to a new level this year, you're sure to find a pudding you like. They come in many sweet varieties like coconut, sweet potato or sugar cane. Or savoury, like mushroom or beet.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Food, glorious food!

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