Chinese New Year food is largely seen as a monolith today; most are lumped under the aegis of "Chinese food" with little differentiation between the various subcultures and dialect groups within the diaspora. As Damian D'Silva — head chef of Singapore heritage restaurant Kin and veteran restaurateur — says, it's a side effect of an increasingly affluent country.
"Chinese New Year has always been a time when you bring out special dishes," says D'Silva. "But over the years, many of these dishes can now be found everywhere, every day. It's because we've become so affluent. In the past, how often did we have duck? Very rarely, because it was very expensive, and not many people knew how to cook it."
The common denominator across Chinese New Year dishes from different dialect groups is the lo hei, which D'Silva says appears across the Chinese diaspora. "This is an old dish from China — and there's a version of it across all dialect groups," he says. "A lot of people don't realise that it didn't start in Singapore. The Chinese version is actually a lot more savoury, and isn't as sweet as the Singaporean version."
Veteran chef and restaurateur Damian D'Silva.
D'Silva says that lo hei in Singapore first began life in the late 1920s as a "raw fish salad," one that mainly utilised grass carp. "This version had no plum sauce and was more savoury than sweet — it used to be sold at a local restaurant named Loong Yik Kee," he says.
The lo hei saw its next big facelift in the 1960s, morphing into the dish that most are familiar with today, when chefs began to realise that the older version was unhygienic due to the raw fish left in the open.
D'Silva credits this invention to Singapore's "Four Heavenly Kings" of the culinary world, Sin Leong, Hooi Kok Wai — founders of the famed Red Star restaurant at Chin Swee Road — and Tham Yui Kai and Lau Yoke Pui.
"The chefs also created the colourful condiments that accompany the salad [today]," adds D'Silva. "The new Singapore version reflected all the things that Chinese New Year foods have to symbolise."
As D'Silva explains, the lo hei was more than a symbolic dish: It was also one that was meant to "open up the tastebuds" and set the tone for the other dishes to come at a Chinese New Year feast. Below, we take a look at some of the key Chinese New Year dishes from several dialect groups.
An example of a lo hei dish; Kin's version from chef Damian D'Silva is meant to be lighter, to allow flavours from the rest of the dishes to come through.
Chinese New Year dinners for Peranakan families are always opportunities for a grand feast, says D'Silva. "For my Peranakan maternal grandmother, she prepared every single dish from scratch — at least two months in advance," he says.
D'Silva says that Chinese New Year dinners would typically display "up to 20 different dishes", from the spicy garang assam to the laborious ayam buah keluak. Some significant dishes include the prawn salad (a "Peranakan version of 'lohei'" and a "must have" during the season) as well as the hati babi bungkus, a patty made with minced pork and herbs which comes wrapped in caul fat.
"It's an extremely rare delicacy, like the haggis of the Peranakans," says D'Silva, who is presenting his version of the dish on Kin's Chinese New Year menu. "The dish is often prepared for ancestral offerings and other significant festivals."
The Babi Hati Bungkus from Kin.
When it comes to a symbol of abundance, there are few dishes as significant as the pen cai, which quite literally assembles all these auspicious symbols into a single pot. But the pen cai is a lot more than just haphazardly throwing in auspicious foods into a bowl. The dish also must be eaten methodically from top to bottom — each of the eight layers must be finished before proceeding to the next — with ingredients like boiled radishes at the bottom and premium seafood near the top.
The decadent suckling pig — a mainstay in court banquets during the Qing Dynasty — is also a common sight at Cantonese Chinese New Year celebrations. The crisp golden pig is almost always presented whole, an auspicious sign that symbolises completeness.
Audrey & Mok Photography
Pen cai from Lime Restaurant.
One festive dish for the Hakka community is the suan pan zi, or abacus beads, a soft, chewy snack that some have likened to "Chinese gnocchi." The dish is considered auspicious due to their round shape which resembles beads on an abacus: Most believe them to signify wealth and prosperity.
But the small size of the dish and short ingredient list belies the effort that goes into making each portion: From kneading the abacus dough while it is still hot to finding the optimal ratio of yam to tapioca flour, making the humble suan pan zi is an undoubtedly arduous task.
Suan pan zi.
A popular dish in the Teochew community during Chinese New Year is rabbit fish; the species' breeding season in January and February usually overlaps with Chinese New Year, resulting in fish that are plump with either roe or milt. It is believed that eating rabbit fish that are filled with roe or milt will ensure prosperity for the year to come.
Another traditional meal with Teochew origins is the aptly-named 7 Vegetables dish, which is eaten on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year — also known as renri, or the "birthday" of mankind. The legend comes from a Chinese myth that posits that humans were created on the seventh day after the creation of the world.
The 7 Vegetables dish is made of greens chosen specifically for their auspicious connotations: In Chinese, the word for spring onion is also a homonym for intellect, signifying that diners will be blessed with intelligence and wit.
For Tho Cheng Kia, the owner and head chef at one of Singapore's oldest Hokkien restaurants Quan Xin Yuan, a traditional Hokkien Chinese New Year dish is mee sua. He told the Michelin Guide that the thin rice noodles in the dish are auspicious, as are the two hard-boiled eggs that the dish usually comes with.
And while pineapple tarts are a Chinese New Year snack tray staple, it is said that Hokkiens are particularly fond of the fruit; the Hokkien name for pineapple, ong lai, literally translates to "fortune come."
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