What follows is a diagrammatic representation of “The Food, the Wad (of lucky money) and the Crumbly“. All are dear to my heart at Chinese New Year.
Heh, I tell a lie: these are dear to my heart not just at CNY, but all the time.
The Year of the Snake…
…started on 10 February 2013. To translate some auspicious Chinese phrases, here’s wishing you:
- a year of abundance;
- a house full of gold and silver; and
- eternal youth, coupled with the vigour of horses and dragons.
There really is such a saying. That’s why red packets often sport pictures of horses or dragons. On the other hand, you wouldn’t see a rat (my horoscope!) pictured on red packets, except during the Year of the Rat.
Pictured left: Best nian-gao ever! It’s a sweet and sticky rice cake, traditionally eaten at Chinese New Year.
This one has plainer packaging than even cigarette packs in Australia. No label. No words, in fact.
Freshly made in the premises of a choice shop in Flemington.
Part I: The Food…
With all extended family overseas, my family of 4 had the traditional new year’s eve dinner in our Sydney home. We invited another small family, who came bearing an auspicious pineapple, CNY biscuits, and an array of Cantonese roast meats from the local shop.
Speaking of roast meats, here is just HALF the queue outside Flemington’s roast meats shop at 9am on Chinese New Year’s Eve:
What’s for dinner?
Yu-sheng, a.k.a. lucky raw fish salad, with ocean trout sashimi. My specialty. The higher you toss, the luckier you’ll be.
Kelantan laksa, pictured before and after mixing in the sauce. Laksa as you may have never seen before. Specialty of M.O.T.H. (Man of the House).
- Sauce – thick with flaked fish, coconut milk and spices.
- Noodles – flat, ribbony rice rolls.
- Herbs – laksa leaf and mint. (Ginger flower not available.)
- Garnish – raw bean sprouts and finely chopped raw snake beans.
Vietnamese New Year pork braised in young coconut juice, with boiled eggs.
Fat tiger prawns fried with Taiwanese barbecue sauce, green onions and ginger. Thanks to my mate Sandy of “A-grade males!” fame for the super-fresh tiger prawn tip-off at Plaza Seafoods.
A whole roast duck, char siu (barbecued pork) and siu yok (roast pork), compliments of the Tan family.
A vegetarian dish. The little black strands are a black moss fungus called Fatt Choy which means “vegetable that looks like hair”. It’s also a homonym for “prosper”, as in Gong Hei Fatt Choy. It’s a very tasty dish because I flavour it with fermented red bean curd – the Orient’s answer to blue cheese.
Part II: …the Wad (of cash)…
The prospect of free money makes many a Chinese child revel in Chinese New Year.
As a kid, this was one of the rare occasions I’d carry a handbag, for the sole purpose of stashing my takings. I don’t think I even had any tissue paper in there.
During the 15-day festive period, every married person must give each child they meet a red packet containing money, for good luck.
Going visiting was very lucrative for me when I was a kid. If a random married friend happened to visit my aunt while I was there, I would score a red packet from that stranger.
Illustrations from my kids’ handmade card below clearly indicate what’s foremost on their minds during CNY. Look closely at the rectangles in the orange sheet, and you’ll notice a dropped hint for a $50 red packet. Tell ’em they’re dreamin’!
Part III: …and the Crumbly
Here’s a 3½-minute video introducing my favourite traditional CNY snacks, lovingly air-flown and hand-carried to Sydney. During the new year period, every respectable Chinese household in Malaysia and Singapore will have a container (or 5) of these.
I edited out those farcical bits of me trying to sound like Sir David Attenborough: I wasn’t capturing any action with the inanimate tidbits, and the only predator around was…holding the camera. So it didn’t seem appropriate to use hushed, excited tones.
The Good News. After watching this video, you’ll be able to identify the must-eat goodies when you’re next in Singapore or Malaysia. More good news: despite being Chinese New Year delicacies, most of them are available all year round over there. Psst…Scoot and AirAsia have cheap fares to the region.
The Bad News. If you live in Sydney, it won’t be easy finding these tidbits in the shops, although I did sniff out decent love letters in Flemington. (What, did you think I’d spare you bad news just because it’s CNY?)
Here’s a little more information on pineapple tarts and love letters.
Hallmarks of a good pinepple tart?
- Pastry? Utterly buttery. Very short.
- Pineapple filling? Somewhat sticky. Just moist enough. Just sweet enough. Not too chunky.
What do pineapples have to do with Chinese New Year?
This is something that also baffles my Hong Kong friends, who tend to be Cantonese. Pineapples are auspicious to punning Hokkiens.
The Hokkien name for pineapple is ong-lai. This sounds the same as “yellow (read: gold) arriving”. Having pineapples in your house during Chinese New Year signifies gold arriving to keep you prosperous all year long.
Confession: At this very moment, my place is home to 3 luck-attracting pineapples.
My mother-in-law has pineapple-shaped lanterns in auspicious. (Digression alert. I’ve coined “auspicious” as a new and original colour name. You know how home renovators paint their walls “aubergine” instead of “purple”? Well, those pineapple lanterns are in the colour “auspicious” instead of “red”. Oops, there goes the phone; that must be Dulux offering me a motza for my brilliant idea.)
Being too cheap to buy decorations, my home-made lanterns look like this instead (pic below). I learnt to make them in primary school.
Hallmarks of a good love letter?
- You can smell it before you see it. That’s from coconut milk and eggs in the batter.
- A well-made love letter is crisp and easily shattered. Impossible to eat crumblessly.
- The wafer is as thin as onion-leaf paper. (Digression again. I recall the quaint old days when people actually posted letters. To my overseas pen pals, I wrote on onion-leaf paper that was thinner and lighter than normal paper, to minimise the postage cost.)
It’s not just the Chinese who celebrate the lunar new year…
Did you know….South Koreans also welcome the lunar new year in a big way? It’s the kind of big festival that make overseas South Koreans homesick if they can’t get home to celebrate.
As the new year approaches, masses of people return to their hometowns to visit their families. China is famous for the new year transport gridlocks, unavoidable when a large section of its 1.3 billion-strong population travels over a few days.
In a parallel but perhaps lesser-known universe, many of the 50 million South Koreans also find themselves cursing in traffic at the same time. When they finally get home, South Koreans will feast in ways different from, but just as traditional as, new year banquets of Chinese people.
To learn more about Korean culture and to sample its power-packed cuisine, jump on the next Korean Adventure on 23 Feb 2013, or blast your tastebuds at the next Mind-blowing Homebush Adventure: Korean Meat+Chilli+Coffee on 9 March 2013.
Want to know more about boisterous, heart-pumping Chinese New Year celebrations? See The Flashiest Way to Say Happy Chinese New Year.