Chinese Lunar New Year Part 2: Sweet Treats and Edible Eats!
Like the New Year customs I mentioned in my previous post, Chinese food traditions are based on homonyms. Sweets are particularly ubiquitous during the Lunar New Year—Chinese bakeries all over the world produce lots of different yummy and delicious treats because having something sweet to eat will help make your New Year just as sweet as well.
Tray of Togetherness
This is a really good example of how symbolism works during Lunar New Year. The Tray of Togetherness is often offered by the host to her/his guests when people visit each other during the season. The tray is divided into eight sections because the word “eight” in Chinese sounds like the word “prosper.” Typically it will be filled with dried fruit and seeds, but more contemporary versions have candies and chocolates in them. Here a few good examples along with their intended meaning/purpose:
Traditionally, melon and lotus seeds are believed to bring a family many sons (progeny) in the New Year. In the past, having sons were critical to the Chinese family as they would carry on the family line and take on the financial responsibilities. Times have changed, of course, and the meaning of these (dyed) red melon and lotus seeds now signify joy, happiness and sincerity. Also, having longan fruit implies the wish to have many sons, too.
Lychee nuts symbolize the hope of strong family ties, while peanuts represente the desire for a long life. Candied coconuts suggest togetherness (amongst family and friends) and candied pineapples signify prosperity in the coming new year. Red dates also mean prosperity as well as the ability to have “all good things” and obviously their bright red color is an indication of a lucky new year.
I've been trying to get a good picture to show as an example, but I have not found any good ones. Anyone have any pictures of their own?
The Sweet Treats
This is can be roughly translated into “sweet glutinous rice ball soup.” The words “tong yuan” sound like the Chinese word for “togetherness” and therefore the soup is eaten on the eve of Lunar New Year to ensure the family will all be together for the coming year. Tong yuan can be filled with black sesame paste, red bean paste or even peanut paste. You can find savory versions that are unfilled and arrive in a broth of mushroom and dried shrimp. I had a sweet black sesame paste filled one this year and it was absolutely delicious—there is usually a slight tinge of vinegar in the soup that accents the sweet mushy glutinous rice ball.
This cart at the Lung Men Bakery on Mulberry Street was stocked full of Lunar New Year sweet treats for sale. The top two shelves you see are many of the edibles I explain below.
Xiao Kou Zao
This dish’s name translates literally into “Crunchy Smiley Face.” It is a sesame-coated sweetened dough ball. Some believe it looks like a laughing face (hence the name) and that the face symbolizes the happiness you will have all year long.
Yau Gok (Cantonese transliteration)
This Lunar New Year treat can be translated as “little crescent” and it is a favorite because it is shaped like traditional Chinese gold ingots. The dough is filled with peanuts and sesame and fried to a golden brown color. This is the "must have" treat for families during the Lunar New Year because these golden treats symbolize the stuffed pockets you’ll have in the coming year.
We can accurately translate this as “prosperity cake” and it is customarily made with wheat flour and either yeast or baking powder. This simple batter is steamed in order to allow it to rise and then splits open at the top—this indicates that your fortunes will rise and spill out to you in the New Year. The ones pictured above are the "extra big" variety.
Jin Dui are Chinese sesame balls that are rounded out of glutinous rice flour and mashed sweet potatoes before being filled with red bean paste, deep fried to a “golden” hue and then finally rolled in sesame seeds. This sweet and crispy treat is a symbol of prosperity in the coming year (are you catching on to the theme here?). I love these crunchy balls that are subtley sweet. I am especially fond of the texture of the sesame seeds on my tongue. Note: You can find these all year round at many dim sum restaurants.
Luo Bo Gao
“Turnip cake” can be found in restaurants and supermarkets all throughout the year but during the Lunar New Year season it can be found in every market in a Chinese community. It is often served on New Year’s Day because it implies prosperity and rising fortune. The word for "cake"--“gao” is a homophone for the Chinese word “tall” or “high” and children eat it so they may grow taller or adults will eat it hoping they can achieve a higher position in their careers. A classic version would have turnips, bits of Chinese sausages, black mushrooms, dried shrimp and flour. I found it sold in large blocks in several bakeries and when you bring it home you slice into smaller portions, pan-fry it and then serve with oyster sauce.
This is the most significant cake eaten during the Lunar New Year. The words literally translate out to “Year Cake” and it is similar in texture to pudding, albeit stickier. Again, the word “gao” sounds like the word for both “cake” and “high” so eating it would guarantee you progress in the New Year. In most versions, the cake is primarily glutinous rice flour whose sticky quality is a symbol of cohesiveness and family. Plainer varieties have just sugar, oil and white sesame seeds, while more impressive ones are mixed with brown sugar, dried red dates (see explanation above), yams and nuts. I have actually never tried this before, it wasn’t a tradition in my family, but I’m looking forward to having a bite of it this year. If you are visiting a Chinese family for the Lunar New Year, this is the ultimate gift.
The Fruit of the Season
In my last post I discussed the different symbolic meanings of fruit during the Lunar New Year. The exchanging of fruit among families and friends is one of the most common traditions amongst Chinese people all over the world. This year my mom received a beautiful box of Korean pears from our friends the T. family. Sweet and crunchy they were the perfect refreshing end to our New Year’s Eve meal.
I wanted to share with you a few of the photos I took of the fruit vendors last Friday. On the streets of Chinatown I saw these fake peach trees which imply longevity next to the much more edible pomegranates which represent children (or the hope for them). The picture below show these gi-normus grapefruit being sold by the street vendors and which were very tempting, especially at such cheap prices, but I had no more hands to carry such large pieces of fruit.
I hope this post helps explain a lot of the sweet treat food symbolism of the Chinese Lunar New Year that you may have glanced at or even tried, but not understood its symbolic meaning. This is a special season to celebrate family, friends, home and of course, food. Through decorations and special dishes we can express our desire for happiness, prosperity, peace and many other good things through the new year.
* I almost exclusively use Mandarin transliterations unless noted.
* Much of my information are sources from tour guide materials provided by MoCA.