Discover why they are popular during the season.
Their deliciousness aside, there’s a wealth of meaning behind each kind of food as well.
Most prominently, the Chinese like playing with words and symbols. Often, homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings) give certain foods their meaning, while others hold a symbolic value because of their resemblence to things like gold bars or inglots. Find out more below!
Nian Gao translates literally to “year cake”, but “higher” is also pronounced “gao” in Mandarin, hence its symbolism of increasing prosperity each year.
Nian Gao is believed to be an offering to the Kitchen God, the most important domestic deity in Chinese mythology. The cake is said to seal the Kitchen God’s mouth so he cannot badmouth a human family to the Jade Emperor (who has the ability to reward or punish a family based on the Kitchen God’s yearly report).
Prepared from a glutinous rice mix and traditionally wrapped in banana leaves, this sweet, sticky cake is typically cut into small pieces, coated in egg batter and deep-fried, to make an addictive snack with a savoury crunch on the outside that yields a delightfully chewy filling.
NEXT: Pineapple tarts →
Not that we need any reason to indulge in this sinfully buttery treat at any time of the year, but pineapple tarts are especially common during Chinese New Year for its Hokkien pronunciation “Ong Lai”, which also translates to “prosperity is arriving”. So punny, you Chinese folks!
The mark of a good pineapple tart: melt-in-your-mouth pastry topped with a good ratio of sweet, sticky pineapple jam.
We hate to be party poopers, but they say just three pineapple tarts is equivalent to a bowl of rice. Calories overload? Not that this would stop us.
NEXT: Shrimp Rolls →
In Chinese culture, shrimps are thought to represent happiness and good fortune, while spring rolls symbolise wealth as their golden colour and cylindrical shape resemble gold bars.
Dried shrimp sambal (hae bee hiam) is rolled in wrappers and deep-fried. Fun fact: hae bee hiam is also what makes a lot of your Singapore hawker fare so delish!
NEXT: Love Letters →
The history of Love Letters goes back centuries: This slightly sweet, fragrantly eggy wafer bisuits were born as a way for secret lovers to communicate in the past. Actual love letters were rolled into these snacks and sent to each other to avoid the suspicion of authorities and disapproving family members. The literal consumption of these biscuits also means that the lover’s words have been taken to heart.
Nowadays, they also come flavoured – we’ve seen black sesame, chocolate, and more. Be warned: they’re extremely addictive!
NEXT: Mandarin oranges →
Mandarin oranges are sweeter and easier to peel than regular oranges.
In ancient China, Mandarin oranges were only for nobles’ consumption, as high public officials wore orange robes, the colour of the skin of Mandarin oranges.
Today, they’re considered symbols of good fortune and are often gifted in pairs during Chinese New Year. So if you’re doing any festive visiting, you are advised to be armed with some of these.
NEXT: Nian Gao →
By Pinky Chng, Updated January 2020
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