Chinese New Year: How to Eat Yourself Lucky
Say cheese! The Year of the Rat is upon us and people all over Singapore and across Asia are counting down to finally being reunited with family for Chinese New Year… and their mum’s cooking, obviously.
As with any holiday, the dinner table is at the heart of the festivities – and the thought of abundant feasting is usually the main thing getting many people through the madness of what is the world’s largest human migration of the year.
There’s no more exciting time to be in Singapore, as the city becomes a lantern-filled wonderland with a lively two weeks worth of traditional Chinese New Year events to be part of. In between hitting up Chinatown, experiencing nightly street shows and exchanging mandarins with your loved ones, there’s a lot of you-know-what to be had. So let’s talk about what you’re really here for: Food, glorious food.
Get lucky with these six dishes…
If it’s fortune you seek in 2020, it’s absolutely necessary you gorge on delicious dishes all Chinese New Year long. Celebratory menus are not only designed to be incredibly delicious, but each traditional dish is made up of ingredients representing wealth and prosperity.
Traditionally, it was customary for families to reunite at home for The Reunion Dinner on New Year’s Eve. These days many choose to hand over the cooking duties to restaurants across Singapore.
Before we introduce you to some of our friends feeding the city with their grand Chinese New Year set menus, we’ve collated a quick list of six lucky eats to devour to set yourself up for a very happy year ahead.
So, grab some chopsticks, cross your fingers and tuck into these fortuitous foods…
What is it?
Yu Sheng, also known as Prosperity Toss, is a Cantonese-style raw fish salad where strips of raw fish are served with shredded vegetables and a mix of tasty sauces and condiments. The dish is commonly served as an appetiser to share with your dinner guests. Ingredients come to the table and the leader of the group will usually be the one to dress the dish with fish, sauces and crunchy golden toppings. Then it’s time to get tossing.
Why is it lucky?Yu Sheng literally translates to raw fish, but it also happens to share its pronunciation with another Chinese word meaning ‘an increase of abundance’. The dish is packed full of ingredients that will also help you on your way to a lucky year. These include pomelos, a pouring out of oil to encourage a big cash flow, carrots, radishes (green for eternal youth and white for success in business) as well as a whole lot of golden, sweet and crunchy toppings like peanut crumbs, plum sauce and deep-fried flour crisps for an extra dash of wealth. When it comes time to dig in, how you eat is just as important as the ingredients. Together, guests use their chopsticks to toss the ingredients skyward. The higher the toss, the greater the fortune – so aim for the sky.
What is it?Originating in Hong Kong, Pen Cai is a pot of tasty treasures dating back to the Song Dynasty. There are many versions of this hearty delicacy – with some pots reaching a whopping 30 ingredients. The idea is to layer the casserole dish with as many luxurious seafood, meat and vegetable ingredients as possible.
Why is it lucky?Historically, the star of Pen Cai (or Poon Choi) was a rather hairy topping of black moss. Translating to ‘fat choi’ in Cantonese, this rare delicacy also sounds exactly like the Cantonese phrase for ‘fat choy’ which is used to wish others prosperity. Unfortunately, black moss is usually only found on the black market. However, with an endless list of high-end ingredients like prawns, fish maw, scallops, abalone, roasted duck and pork belly stuffed into the pot, we think you’ll still find plenty to feel lucky about.
What is it?Bet you saw this one coming. Dumplings are a staple all year round in Singapore, but they are especially enjoyed at Chinese New Year to farewell the old and welcome the new. Families usually prepare them together and in some areas of China, the daughter-in-law must make a dumpling to be initiated into the family. No pressure. There are no rules when it comes time to fill the dough, but Chinese cabbage, green onion, pork and shrimp are a long-standing favourite combo.
Why is it lucky?It’s believed that the more dumplings one eats, the more dosh they’ll get in their pocket over the coming year. These succulent flavour parcels are crafted to look like Chinese silver ingots and are sometimes even filled with random coins to grant good fortune to lucky eaters, so chew carefully.
Whole Steamed Fish**
What is it?The beautiful bounty of the ocean is celebrated in this fresh and fortuitous dish, where a whole fish is steamed (or fried for the indulgent) with simple flavours. The brilliant creature is then scattered with toppings such as green onions and fragrant herbs.
Why is it lucky?If you hadn’t noticed already, Chinese cultures are rather fond of their play on words. It’s no different for this fishy word. When translated, ‘fish’ has the same pronunciation as the translated words for ‘surplus’ or ‘wealth’. Steaming a whole large fish makes that message even stronger and it is a must-have to ensure abundant food and money in 2020 from start to finish (or rather, head to tail). To keep luck on your side, some discipline is required as it’s customary to eat half the fish on New Years Eve and the other half on New Year’s Day.
Broccoli with Mushrooms
What is it?Stay with us on this one. This dish is so much more exciting than it sounds and will quickly be up there with your noodle and rice staples. Though humble ingredients, the vibrant green broccoli and silky sheen of shiitake mushrooms make a statement on the table during Chinese New Year. Many households actually refrain from eating meat on the first day of the New Year, so this dish is a godsend.
Why is it lucky?Those needing a little push along to eat their greens, may be interested to know that these healthy guys have more to do with your fate than you think. The tree-like shape of broccoli represents the blossoming of new beginnings, while the shiitake mushrooms are symbolic of longevity.
What is it?Often referred to as Chinese New Year’s cake, when it comes to the dessert of the festival, Nian Gao clearly takes the – well – cake. This famous sweet treat is made from glutinous rice flour, sugar and lard which is then steamed, deep fried or eaten cold depending on the recipe’s origin. However you choose to eat it, you’ll be wanting seconds for sure.
Why is it lucky?Meaning ‘higher year’ in Cantonese, Nian Gao is the dessert for those with goals to smash in the Year of the Rat. Generally circular, its roundness and sticky texture also illustrates the strong bond between family members. And it’s not just family members who get to enjoy the sugary delight. Many offer up a sticky rice cake to their “Kitchen God”, in the hope that when it comes to reporting back to The Emperor of Heaven, the dessert has either stuck his lips together or sweetened his review of their household.
Where to go for Chinese New Year Dinner in Singapore?
Now you know what you should be filling your belly with, it’s time to find your perfect Chinese New Year dining destination. Restaurants across the city are rolling out their special holiday menus, crammed full of lucky favourites.
Here’s our pick of the best places to enjoy your Chinese New Year dinner…
With the National Gallery of Singapore as its home, Yàn is an exquisite dining destination for Chinese New Year. Whether you’re a table of 2 or 10, choose from six menus full of dishes like Yu Sheng, steamed fish, Nian Gao and plenty of hearty seafood pot. On top of private rooms and cosy booths, Yàn also offers their special Harvest Pen Cai to take away and devour in the comfort of your own home.
There’s no better time to enjoy this Singaporean restaurant’s merry-go-round of never-ending food. While Carousel boasts a buffet-style dining experience all year inside the lobby of the Royal Plaza on Scotts, they’re turning it up for the Year of the Rat celebrations. Serving lunches, high tea and dinner from the 24 to 27 January, Carousel is perfect for large families with children. Expect to see Singapore favourites like Chilli Crab and Laksa blended in with Chinese New Year staples. Carousel also presents oranges and Yu Sheng to the table as complimentary offerings of fortune.
Jia Wei Chinese Restaurant
From now until 9 February, Jia Wei is putting on what can only be described as a sumptuous festive feast. Climb up to the second floor of the Grand Mercure for a banquet that is elegant but with all the magic of a home-cooked meal. Diners can choose from 13 set menus and each dish tells a different story of good fortunes.
In a charming Qing Dynasty inspired setting, Nanjing Impressions have four Spring set menus to kick off the Year of the Rat. Known for creating award-winning dishes, you can expect the Fortune, Happiness, Treasure and Prosperity menus, full of premium ingredients like crayfish and truffle, to each deliver on their promise.
Escape to Cherry Garden’s oasis for Chinese New Year and select from a range of menus to suit your party. Keep up your dumpling intake with their Dim Sum Brunch or opt for the Family, Individual or even Takeaway Menu. As delicious as it is exceptional in presentation, Cherry Garden guarantees a memorable holiday feast.
Dancing Fish Signature
Blending Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines, Dancing Fish Signature’s set menu features elements of traditional Chinese New Year dishes with a unique flavour twist. The fusion restaurant has two menus to choose from, depending on your party size. From Abundance Platters to Auspicious Fresh Water Prawns, the layers of luck within each dish will have you dancing through the Lunar New Year celebrations and beyond.
As the first to serve Yu Sheng in Singapore, you can count on Lai Wah for a fortuitous feast. From now until the end of Chinese New Year, Lai Wah is offering both set and a la carte menus. The star of the show is of course the Yu Sheng, which is also available to take away.
Price: $108 (3 – 4 people) – $618 (10 people)Menu: Discover Lai Wah’s CNY Specialties
Over to you…
How are you and your family celebrating the Year of the Rat? Are there any lucky foods you gobble up together? Let us know in the comments below.
And if you’re looking for somewhere to see the fireworks go off on Chinese New Year’s Eve, we’ve written a whole blog post on the best rooftop restaurants and bars in Singapore.