As a Chinese-Indonesian-Malaysian-Australian living in New York, nothing makes me feel more Chinese than the New Year. After talking with friends about their diverse family traditions, it seems to me that like there is no one kind of Chinese, there is no one way of celebrating this highest of holidays. However, the Chinese are a very literal people so we all celebrate with foods that are symbolic of prosperity; sweet, rich, and above all, abundant. One example is the word for “cake,” which is akin to the word for “rise.” Leavened cakes are necessary, leaving no room for flourless impostors. The word for pineapple sounds like "forthcoming majesty" in Hokkien, my dialect of Chinese, and identical to "gold" in Cantonese. Thus, a pineapple is always the centerpiece, surrounded by segments of golden mandarins.
As a kid in Indonesia, Chinese New Year always meant hovering around the coffee table laden with snacks reserved for visiting relatives. Stacked high were containers full of all manner of cookies. We even had a snack caddy with individual compartments for peanuts, pumpkin seeds, White Rabbit Creamy Candy and assorted preserves. Such preserves included salted mandarin peel, Chinese olives which are sweet and tart, and plump prunes that are fragrantly sweet but also slightly salty. A line of gift hampers full of chocolate, cookies, and snacks sent to us for the holiday were arranged neatly in the living room. My siblings and I would peer through the cellophane at the goodies we knew my mother would later give away. Chinese New Year was a lot like that – the euphoria of gleeful abundance co-mingling with reticent duty.
In our family, we have the big feast on New Year’s Eve. The canon includes slow-braised sea cucumbers served with pork meatballs in a rich brown gravy; braised abalone with mushrooms; five-spiced pork wrapped in tofu skins; fried pastry cups filled with a turnip-carrot-dried squid mixture. Everything is so labor intensive and time-consuming that you vow that next year’s meal will be less elaborate (although it never is).
My favorite dish has always been yee sang, a raw fish salad from the Teochew region of Southern China. Ingredients may vary but usually include raw salmon, carrot, cucumber, daikon, lettuce, pickled ginger and pearl onions. Each individual element is sliced, shredded or julienned and carefully arranged around a large platter, garnished with cilantro, crushed peanuts, and fried pastry pieces for crunch. This is at once the opening act and the star of the show. A sauce is poured over and everyone gets in with their chopsticks to mix the salad, making sure to toss high to usher in the new year’s prosperity. While other dishes may change from year to year, it would not be Chinese New Year without yee sang.
On New Year's Day we would all be decked out in new clothes, down to socks and underwear. The starchy cotton dresses my sister and I were made to wear were almost always smocked, which I hated. Combined with the oppressive tropical heat, I always understood Chinese New Year to be an uncomfortable event. It was a long day as we travelled between the houses of relatives we rarely saw, courtesy-eating their coffee-table buffet while my parents caught up with the latest family gossip. The chain of visits would continue until we were finally homeward bound.
At home, we would have a tea made of boiled red dates and dried longans, a tropical fruit indigenous to South East Asia which grow in abundant bushels. The tea is deliciously sweet and dried longans are said to aid relaxation. Perhaps that was the reason why I loved it so much, but I suspect it had something to do with the day’s duties done with nothing to left to do but spend time with my family and of course, the prospect of leftovers.
A happy and prosperous New Year to all! May you eat well and heartily!
May Wijaya is an experienced arts administrator and a big time food nerd. She is fascinated by the stories people tell through foodways. It is possible she spends too much time thinking about food. She also has a keen interest in food policy including childhood obesity issues.