Food & Culture

The auspicious and the delicious: what to eat on Lunar New Year

From a raw fish salad loaded with "hectic symbolism" to a soup whose name doubles as a greeting on the day, these are the celebratory dishes that usher in the Lunar New Year.

By Annie Hariharan & Yvonne C Lam
Well before Pope Gregory XIII instituted what we now know and observe as the Gregorian calendar, there was the lunisolar calendar – a system for tracking the passing days according to the cycles of the moon. The calendar is still culturally observed around the world, and it's Lunar New Year, which falls on February 12 in 2021, that is the most familiar day of note for Australians.
Celebrations, customs and even the duration of the Lunar New Year festivities vary between East and Southeast Asian communities – Vietnam's Têt goes for nine days, chunjie in Chinese communities kicks on for 15, while Korea's Seollal holiday lasts for three. But food, and plenty of it, is a common thread. Symbolism too. Here, we delve into the Lunar New Year dishes from communities around the world that are eaten for auspicious – and delicious – reasons.

YUSHENG

Malaysia, Singapore (with growing popularity in Hong Kong and China)
Also known as "prosperity toss salad", this rainbow raw-fish dish is more than just a pretty face. Like many Lunar New Year dishes, it's loaded with "hectic symbolism", according to chef Victor Liong of Melbourne's Lee Ho Fook. The recipe varies between households but the mainstay is sliced raw fish (usually salmon).
There's culinary word play here – the word for fish (yú, in Pinyin) sounds like the word for abundance (yù) as spoken in several Chinese dialects; hence the inclusion of raw fish portends a prosperous year ahead. Julienned vegetables – daikon, carrot, kohlrabi, cucumber – add crunch and colour, while a selection of accoutrements are sprinkled over the platter before serving, representing prosperity and good fortune. Peanuts and sesame seeds symbolise a home filled with gold and jade; oil is for a smooth year ahead; and a calamansi-spiked plum sauce brings sweet blessings. Then: "Everyone at the table attacks it with chopsticks and makes a massive mess," says Liong. In his family, relatives have been known to stand on chairs while yelling auspicious slogans. "The higher you throw it, the more prosperous the year ahead." - Yvonne C Lam
Find it: Melbourne's Lee Ho Fook and Sydney's Ho Jiak serve a version of yusheng in the lead-up to Lunar New Year.
Yusheng, also known as the prosperity toss salad. Illustration: Laura Jacobs

JIU HU CHAR

Malaysia
Jiu hu char means fried cuttlefish in Hokkien, but this is a stir-fry dish featuring both cuttlefish and jicama. It is a staple food for many Chinese festivals in Malaysia, including Lunar New Year. When the Chinese community settled in Malaysia centuries ago, particularly north Malaysia, they added local flavours to jiu hu char such as dried shrimp or fermented shrimp (sambal belacan). It is usually eaten with rice or as a wrap with iceberg lettuce. Dishes served with lettuce (sang choi) are popular during Lunar New Year because sang choi means "to prosper" in Cantonese. In recent times, families have started adding shiitake mushrooms or pork belly to the dish, so that it becomes a crunchy, standalone dish. – Annie Hariharan
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Jiu hu char, a dish of stir-fried cuttlefish and jicama. Illustration: Laura Jacobs

BAK KWA

Malaysia, Singapore
Bak kwa started out as a preservation technique for leftover meat in the Fujian province on the south-east coast of China. It is often called pork jerky in English, which is not entirely accurate. Jerky is dehydrated meat while bak kwa is a sweeter, air-dried or barbecued meat (usually pork). Bak kwa has a distinct chewy texture and the scale of chewiness depends on whether it is made with thin slices of meat (crunchy and chewy) or minced meat (smooth and chewy).When Chinese immigrants brought bak kwa to Malaysia and Singapore, they used a charcoal barbecue, which gave it a smokier finish. It is now a typical Lunar New Year snack in these countries, which is a throwback to when meat used to be an annual luxury. – AH
Find it: Bak kwa is sold at Oloiya, 188 Victoria St, Richmond, Vic, or at Singapore Famous BBQ Pork, Prince Trade Centre, 8 Quay St, Haymarket, NSW.
Bak kwa, a type of air-dried barbecued pork that's often, though somewhat inaccurately, described as jerky. Illustration: Laura Jacobs

NIAN GAO

Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan
Nian gao translates to "year cake" from Mandarin and has origins in Fujian and Guangdong, provinces in south-east China. It is a sticky, steamed, glutinous rice cake with palm sugar and served during Lunar New Year in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. A common legend is that families serve nian gao as an offering to the Kitchen God who will provide a yearly report of the family to the Jade Emperor. Since the dish is sticky, they hope it will clamp his mouth shut so he cannot badmouth the family. Variations of nian gao can be found throughout Southeast Asia, as the dish has been adapted to local tastes and renamed. In the Philippines, it is known as tikoy; in Malaysia, kue keranjang. - AH
Find it: Nian gao is available as a seasonal product at Tang Food Emporium, 185 Russell St, Melbourne, or Miracle Supermarkets, at various locations in Sydney.
Nian gao, a sticky, steamed, glutinous rice cake. Illustration: Laura Jacobs

BÁNH CHƯNG

Vietnam
The steamed sticky-rice cake is eaten year-round, but it has particular significance around Tết, Vietnam's Lunar New Year festival. Legend has it Prince Lang Liêu of the Hùng dynasty (circa 1712 BC) entered bánh chưng as part of a competition for the best Tết dish, as decreed by the emperor. The ingredients are simple – a filling of mung beans, pork belly and black pepper, cosseted in sticky rice, formed into a square, and tightly wrapped in fragrant lá dong leaves. (These leaves, from the same family of the arrowroot plant, are not available in Australia, and are often substituted with banana leaves or lotus leaves.) In Vietnam, families and neighbours come together to prepare the packages before boiling them over a wood-fire for 12 hours. There's a sense of occasion that children, in particular, look forward to. "You don't need to sleep!," remembers Minh Nguyen of Sydney's Bánh Cuốn Bà Oanh. "We would sit around, eating, singing, playing. It's a lot fun." – YCL
Found at Vietnamese grocers around Lunar New Year, including at Thai Hung and Kung Fu Grocery, both in Marrickville.
The ingredients to bánh chứng are simple, but the preparation is anything but. Illustration: Laura Jacobs

TTEOKGUK

Korea
"Have you eaten tteokguk?" So goes the common greeting during Seollal (Korean New Year), and it speaks to the cultural and culinary importance of the rice cake soup to the celebration. "You can have tteokguk anytime of the year, but during Seollal you have to have tteokguk," says Heather Jeong, chef and cooking instructor.
Jeong remembers her grandmother would have a giant stockpot of beef broth on the stove, in which she simmered chewy tteok (rice cakes), sliced into ovals to symbolise coins and prosperity, with the snow-white hue representing purity and a "clean slate" for the new year. The lot is ladled into bowls and garnished with spring onions, slices of beef, gim (dried seaweed sheets) and thinly sliced omelette. It's a subtly flavoured dish that's gussied up with a side of kimchi, and usually forms part of a larger banquet that could include galbi-jjim (braised short ribs), jun (the catch-all term for Korean fried savoury pancakes) and mandu (dumplings). "And japchae [stir-fried sweet-potato noodles]," says Jeong. "It's a party dish." – YCL
If there's one dish to eat during Seollal, it's got to be tteokguk. Illustration: Laura Jacobs
This story was updated on Tuesday 9 February to remove references to "sashimi". Yusheng is a dish of Malaysian origin, and should be referred to as a raw fish salad.
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  • undefined: Annie Hariharan & Yvonne C Lam