Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival in mainland China, is celebrated throughout the Chinese diaspora as well as neighbouring countries like Vietnam and North and South Korea. With many of the connotations that one would expect of a new year, it signifies the turning over of a new leaf. It’s a chance to start afresh.
Above all, Chinese New Year means a lot of eating. It’s a time that encourages you to gather with your family and friends. These meetings often take place around food. Families will often get together to tyun4 nin4 (團年), a verb that means to reunite before the new year, and synonymous with tyun4 nin4 faan6 (團年飯), the reunification meal. Similar to hoi1 nin4 faan6 (開年飯), the meal the family has on the second day of the New Year, this is a meal that has an even number of dishes, eight being the most auspicious, due to pronunciation of the number baat3 (八) being almost homonymous with faat3 (發) which means “to become wealthy.” For dessert at the end of these meals, you’ll often be served glutinous rice balls (tong1 jyun2 湯圓), with fillings like chopped peanuts, or black sesame, the reason being that tong jyun sounds like tyun4 jyun4 (團圓), meaning “to be reunited.” This sort of wordplay of near-homonyms is the basis for most ingredients, foods and dishes used over Chinese New Year.
On the dining table at family dinners immediately before and after New Year’s Day, expect to find dishes that include nostoc flagelliforme, a sort of weed that grows in the desert, commonly called hair moss or hair vegetable, translated from its Chinese name faat3 coi3 (髮菜). It sounds like faat3 coi4 (發財), or “to become rich,” as in the phrase gung1 hei2 faat3 coi4 (恭喜發財). Eat it and be prosperous – or so the reasoning goes.
Traditionally, faat coi is cooked with dried oysters (hou4 si2 蠔豉), which sounds similar to hou2 si5 (好市) or hou2 si6 (好事), meaning “good business” or “good things” respectively. With the intense flavours that dried oysters impart, the flavours can be an acquired taste, even to locals, and with its unexciting dark brown tones, it’s not the most visually appealing dish. These days, chefs like Jowett Yu of Ho Lee Fook have created new versions of it, such as steamed fresh oysters paired with hair moss.
People who expect visitors to pass by their home over the festive season will often prepare a box of snacks, called a cyun4 hap6 (攢盒), meaning a box for keeping or preserving. However, cyun4 is an exact homonym of 全, which means complete, hence these days many people know the box as a “complete box,” signifying harmony and unity, a fundamental value of Confucianism.
Most of the items in the box are candies, as sweets symbolise a “sweet” life, and they range from traditional candies like sugared fruits and vegetables like winter melon (tong4 dung1 gwaa1 糖冬瓜) or lotus root (tong4 lin4 ngau5 糖蓮藕), to more modern interpretations like chocolates wrapped in (auspicious) gold foil. Roasted seeds are also a common snack included in the box, especially watermelon seeds that have been dyed red, another traditionally propitious colour.
Perhaps one of the most well-known Chinese New Year food is steamed puddings (nin4 gou1 年糕) made mostly from glutinous rice flour. In Hong Kong, these puddings are either made at home or, increasingly, offered as seasonal retail items by Chinese restaurants, to be given as gifts. They are usually round and the size of a small birthday cake — around 16 centimetres in diameter— and can be either sweet or savoury. Brown sugar and water chestnut are the classic sweet options, although these days, they tend to follow general dessert trends, and one will find every flavour from red date and wolfberry at Ming Court, to a dual-layered sweet potato and sugar cane pudding at Hoi King Heen, to the Japanese-influenced red bean and green tea at Shang Palace. The traditional savoury options are turnip and taro, but like its sweet counterpart, chefs are experimenting with new additions, such as beetroot at Little Bao, the deep crimson hue of which continues to reinforce the connotations of luck.
As you’d probably expect by now, the tradition of eating steamed puddings again arose from a homonymic name. Nin4 gou1 stands for nin4 nin4 gou1 sing1 (年年高升), “to climb the ranks” or “improve year on year.” To eat the puddings, one usually slices and panfries each piece until the exterior forms a crisp crust and the interior is warmed through.
In other regions of China, the words nin4 gou1, or nian gao in Mandarin, usually denote other forms of rice cake or rice pudding made from glutinous rice flour. Traditional Shanghainese nian gao, for instance, are rice cakes made without any flavourings, toppings or additional ingredients, and are shaped into long sausage-like cylinders. The all-white tubular pudding is then sliced and stir-fried with other ingredients to form a dish.
Hongkongers have also recently begun to adopt New Years’ culinary traditions from other nearby cultures, such as opting for the “basin dish” (pun4 coi3 盆菜) of Hong Kong’s walled village communities for reunion dinners with family, and starting the New Year with a lohei (lou1 hei2 撈起) also known as yee sang, a tradition of Singaporean Chinese.
The basin dish is a classic celebratory dish consisting of multiple dishes layered in a large, deep dish (hence “basin”) placed in the centre of the table, intended to serve a large group. The layers often include all the typical special-occasion dishes such as slow braised abalone, hair moss with dried oysters, Cantonese-style barbecued meats, poached chicken and steamed prawns. Legend has it that during the Southern Song period of the Song Dynasty (1127–1279), when the Song emperor and his troops were fleeing south, they stopped by the northern reaches of Hong Kong (present-day Kam Tin), where sympathetic villagers offered to feed them, but as they were on the move, the villagers couldn’t find enough crockery for them to carry the food with them, so they put various dishes in their washing basins. The villagers are said to be so proud of this that they began serving basin dishes whenever a celebration was in order, from weddings to Chinese New Year.
These days, some Hongkongers beyond the villages have taken to ordering a basin from restaurants (where it is served in more sightly and insulated claypots or baking dishes) for Chinese New Year’s eve dinner for their family, the main appeal being the convenience of having one single that dish will feed everyone.
To eat lohei, the Singaporean dish of raw fish slices, noodles, julienned vegetables, peanuts and crispy wonton skin-like chips, friends and family must all stand around one large platter of ingredients at the dining table, and used their chopsticks to toss the ingredients together. As they’re tossing, they say auspicious phrases to wish each other a lucky year ahead, and it’s said that the higher one tosses, the better one’s luck will be. Again, much of this is to do with word play, as hei2 起 (meaning to rise) in lohei is homonymous with 喜 (also hei2) which means “joy,” and the same word is used in the phrase fung1 saang1 seoi2 hei2 (風生水起), which means “to become wealthy.”
Hong Kong has happily adopted the tradition. Not only do contemporary restaurants like Ho Lee Fook serve it, traditional ones do too, showing that anything that involves a bit of communal fun while promising good fortune will always be popular for Chinese New Year.
Where to eat
Cordis Hotel Hong Kong, 555 Shanghai Street, Mongkok, 3552 3028
Why we like it: Elegant, traditional Cantonese fare made with the utmost care, from ingredients to presentation, plus there’s an impressive wine cellar. Just gained 2 Michelin stars in 2015
Hoi King Heen
Inter Continental Grand Standford, 70 Mody Rd, 2731 2883
Why we like it: Fine dining Cantonese with a penchant for seasonal specialties and daring twists on the classics, as well as old-school favourites like almond milk and egg white made tableside.
Ho Lee Fook
1 Elgin St, Central, 2810 0860.
Why we like it: It’s not often that modern Chinese restaurants deliver on both the food and the hip factor, but Ho Lee Fook, helmed by Chinese-Canadian chef Jowett Yu, hits the nail on the head.
60 Staunton St, Central, 2194 0202
Why we like it: Think of a cool American burger bar, then replace the food with inventive Chinese-inspired sliders made with Chinese steamed buns – that’s Little Bao, although don’t just stick to the buns, because the sides also show what a flavour genius chef May Chow is.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.