Of all the religions in the world today, it can be fairly argued that none celebrate their new year with quite the same verve, spectacle and noise as the Chinese.
If you’re not blinded by the over-the-top gaudy red and gold ornaments that are hung with the single purpose of encouraging the arrival of unmitigated wealth in the year to come, then the unabashedly loud music that seemingly starts blaring from shop speakers before you’ve even recovered from Christmas tunes will do your head in.
But if you can put aside the a-lot-is-good-but-more-isbetter mindset that drives contemporary Chinese New Year celebrations, then there is much to glean inspiration from over the 13 days of the lunar new year.
Elaborate gastronomic preparations begin in the weeks leading up to the big day, as pastries and food are either bought or painstakingly baked, cooked and amassed.
Every Chinese home will be heaving with crates of fragrant mandarins from China to be copiously consumed by residents and visitors alike or included as part of festive hampers for friends and colleagues.
Preserved fruit will be stored in jars for visitors to nibble on while visiting and/or gambling, and they include ginger, melon, mango, pears, sunflower seeds, melon and even green peas.
But nothing quite beats the excessive splendour of the reunion feast. The Eastern equivalent of Thanksgiving, the reunion dinner is often held at the home of the most senior family member, and is the single most important family gathering of the year.
Unless you are dead, there is no excuse for escaping this ritual, and in much the same fashion as Thanksgiving, it’s the most opportune time for senior family members to grill younger relations about such happy topics as marriage, marriage, kids and marriage.
Fortuitously, there is as much alcohol as there is food there to help alleviate the pain of these inquisitions. Meat in all its guises tends to take centre stage, be it poultry, pork or beef.
At my family home, my mother’s famous slow-cooked pork belly with dark soya sauce is trotted out with such religious regularity that when she decided inexplicably to deviate from that particular gastronomic proferring one year she almost had a mutiny on her hands.
Fish is a big hit at the reunion dinner, and that’s because its pronunciation (yi) sounds the same as “excess”. Ergo—or so the Chinese reckon—eating fish will ensure said family a surfeit of good food all through the year.
In the same superstitious vein, lo han chai,or Buddha’s delight, a vegetarian concoction that looks like it’s been cooked with human hair thanks to the black algae that is the star ingredient of this dish, is a ubiquitous item on the menu because the name of the algae—fatt choy in Cantonese—is a homophone for “prosperity”.
Apart from the unrelenting superstitiousness of the Chinese and their indefatigable efforts at ushering good luck and abundance through the front door, Chinese New Year is characterised by a third important factor: food.
For the duration of the celebrations, food is consumed continuously throughout the day. If you have 13 homes to ‘visit’, those same 13 families will coax, urge and almost force you to eat before you will be allowed to leave.
From waxed meats, curries and roasted meats to noodles (uncut to ensure longevity of course), rice and more meat, eating is as much an integral activity of the new year as the exchange of red packets for luck.
If this is your first Chinese New Year in Malaysia, some rules apply: when offered food, eat. When offered libations, drink. There is nothing more horrifying to Chinese hosts than guests who are on diet, have gastronomic allergies or simply “have already eaten”. It’s akin to visiting your best friend and asking his widowed grandmother out on a hot date—taboo!
You will need to pace yourself if you plan to visit several Chinese friends. Make a big show of taking food and do the supermodel trick if you simply cannot fit another chicken drumstick into your turgid belly: swirl the food around and act as if you are planning your next mouthful then stealthily dispose of the plate when nobody is looking.
The other acceptable way of avoiding food is to drink. When you have a drink in your hand, you are bizarrely exempted from the pressure of eating.
Wear red if possible, starve yourself in the week leading up to the new year and you will enjoy yourself, as much for the experience as for the unstinting generosity and hospitality of your new Chinese friends. It’s like nothing you’ve ever known. Gong Xi Fa Cai!
EL’s Five Must-Try Dishes
These sticky cakes phonetically mean “year high” which is synonymous with prosperity, thereby ensuring the glutinous sweet cake a place in every Chinese pantry come New Year’s Day.
These caramelised pork and chicken slices are slow cooked over charcoal and consumed by the tons during Chinese New Year, largely because, despite having negative health benefits, they taste really, really good.
Traditionally consumed to choruses of loh hei on the seventh day and meant to bring good luck, the sweet salad is usually topped with salmon and is now widely eaten even in the weeks leading up to the New Year period, probably because the ever-careful and canny Chinese want to hedge their bets.
These dumplings are a mainstay in China but have made their way into many ‘overseas Chinese’ homes, primarily because they—surprise surprise—are supposed to bring good luck.
Imported from China where the cold winter winds dehydrate the meat, Chinese waxed meats form the cornerstone of a lot of New Year feasts and include waxed sausages, liver sausages, Cantonese sausages and waxed duck.
Where to eat
For a wide array of Chinese New Year goodies ranging from waxed meats and bak kua to pastries and mandarins
For yee sang
Bangsar Shopping Centre, Jalan Maarof, Bangsar, KL.
Tel: 03–2284 8822
For lo han chai
24 Jalan Telawi Tiga, Bangsar, KL.
Tel: 03–2283 5523
For roasted meats and the signature duck special
Jaya One, 27 Jalan Universiti, PJ.
Tel: 03–7957 9819