Food is one of the biggest part of the Chinese New Year, with many of the traditional and cultural practices taking place around the many dinners, lunches and breakfasts that Chinese families reunite for.
And while these meals may be the top-billed stars of the celebrations, the supporting characters that keep us munching, crunching and snacking through the festivities do an exemplary job of holding their own.
When bottles and tins of pineapple tarts, love letters, peanut cookies and prawn rolls become visible around every corner, stacked from floor to ceiling, you know that the Chinese New Year is here.
But after tilting my head, squinting my eyes and wondering how this came to be, I reached out to as many people as I could to get to learn how these snacks became staples.
“All the items became staples because they symbolise something in their own unique way,” says Jane Lee, restaurant manager of Chynna, in Hilton Kuala Lumpur.
“Although some of them have been commercialised, others are only seen during celebrations or the festive season.”
Jane, who makes and bakes many of these traditional snacks herself, was more than happy to fill me in on why my gorging these delicious morsels of delight have a deeper meaning than my insatiable appetite.
“Also known as kuih kapit, they are said to be a way lovers communicated in olden times. The edible quality of the message ensured the absence of proof and consumption of the heartfelt message was also seen as sign that the lover’s words were taken to heart.”
“In Hokkien, a pineapple is called ‘ong lai’ which literally translates to ‘prosperity or good fortune has come’. So serving and eating pineapple tarts is said to bring prosperity and luck to the home.”
The preserved jerky-like meat “is special in Chinese tradition; it symbolises good luck and is believed to ward off negative energy.”
“Originally made in the shape of the currency of ancient China, it was used as ancestral offerings or for a newly departed to spend in the afterlife. Today they are made in animal and floral shapes with unique symbolism. For example: a goldfish symbolises prosperity, while a chrysanthemum stands for fortune.”
“In Chinese culture, the peanut represents longevity. The cookies also symbolise the wish for many children, and are very popular cookies with chatty aunties.”
“Imported from Malay culture, kuih bahulu is often given as gift by people who travel by water. The kuih is usually shaped like fish during Chinese New Year as the Chinese word for fish sounds similar to the word for abundance.”
“The arrowhead vegetable symbolises good life. The process to make the chips is long and hard, so it is usually only given to close relatives.”
“Shrimp and prawns are said to represent good fortune and happiness while spring rolls represent wealth. The shape of the roll is meant to evoke imagery of gold bars.”
So now you can eat as much of these snacks knowing what they symbolise, but do you know the meaning behind the iconic yee sang?