Various cakes, fruits, sweetmeats, nuts and delicacies are popular treats served and eaten during Chinese New Year as part of festivities celebrated in Singapore by those of Chinese descent. These items are served primarily because their names have auspicious double meanings.1
“King of cakes”
Niangao (literally “year cake”) is a Chinese New Year staple that is made from glutinous rice flour and sugar. As gao has the same pronunciation as the word “high” in Mandarin, niangao is offered in the belief that those who consume it will be rewarded with a higher status or a better life in the new year.2 After a few weeks, the cake hardens and can then be steamed and eaten with grated coconut, or cut into slices, dipped in batter and fried.3
Mandarin oranges, or tangerines, are popular gifts during Chinese New Year. They are called kam in Cantonese, which is a homonym for “gold”. Its mandarin pronunciation sounds like ji (lucky) and means “gifts of good omen”. Even numbers of oranges, representing good luck, are given to friends and relatives when visiting them.4
Tray of luck
The octagonal tray known as pa kuo ho is a traditional eight-sided container with a variety of sweetmeats, cakes and seeds that are served to visitors to one’s home. The centre of the tray usually contains melon seeds. The Chinese believe that the more melon seeds one eats, the more children one will have. The sweetmeats are a symbol of the sweetness of life, while the cakes (gao) suggest a better quality of life.5 The eight sides of the tray represent prosperity as the Cantonese word for eight is paat, which sounds like the Cantonese word for “prosperity”.6
Fish of fortune
The Mandarin word for “fish” (yu) is a homonym for “surplus”. Hence, fish must be served at family reunion dinners, usually held on the eve of Chinese New Year. The fish should be served whole – the head and tail signifies a beginning and an end and thus represents completeness. Often the last dish to be served, fish is symbolic of the host wishing his/her guests continual abundance.7
The Teochew Chinese consider the rabbit fish (Siganus canaliculatus) – baidu yu in Mandarin, or pek thor her in Teochew – as auspicious as it signifies good luck and prosperity. The rabbit fish breeds only once a year, coinciding with the seasonal Chinese New Year celebrations in January or February. Hence the silver-grey female fish, heavy with delicious roe, is a Chinese New Year delicacy.8
Another popular Chinese New Year dish is raw fish, or yusheng, which signifies a wish for extra life and abundance. The dish is also eaten for good luck and prosperity on the seventh day of Chinese New Year, which is known as renri (meaning “day of man” or “day of humanity”). The fish is thinly sliced and tossed together with a mixture of shredded vegetables in a sweet, piquant sauce.9
Groundnuts or peanuts are staple snacks during the Lunar New Year. Huasheng, as they are known in Mandarin, is a homonym for “flower of life” and symbolises a long, healthy life for those who eat them.10 Chestnuts, or lizi in Mandarin, represent good profits in the coming year.11
Oysters and sea moss
Hosi, “oyster” in Cantonese, is a homonym meaning “fortunate situation”, while fatt choy (referring to “sea moss” in Cantonese) sounds like “to prosper”. The oyster and sea moss come together in a dish called ho si fatt choy, which equates to a Chinese New Year greeting that means “happy events and may you strike a fortune”.12
Shiitake mushrooms, known as donggu in Mandarin, are associated with the idiom dongcheng xijiu, meaning “wishes fulfilled from the east to west”.13
Hongzao, Mandarin for “red dates”, literally translates to “prosperity comes early”.14
Lotus seeds are called lianzi in Mandarin, which is also the pronunciation for “many sons”. The seeds are offered to families in the hope that they would have a continuous lineage of sons.15
Abalone is known as baoyu in Mandarin, which has a parallel meaning of “assurance” (bao) of a “surplus” (yu) in the year ahead. Abalone is a popular Chinese New Year dish among businessmen.16
Shengcai, meaning “raw lettuce” in Mandarin, is a homonym that also means to “grow money”. It is usually eaten with braised abalone in the hopes of gaining prosperity.17 Another vegetable favoured by businessmen is the Chinese leek because its Mandarin name, da’suan, sounds like “counting (of money)”. When the leek is served in combination with cuttlefish, youyu in Mandarin, the dish takes on even greater significance as the latter also means “counting with abundance”. When the leek is cooked with prawns (har in Cantonese, which sounds like laughter), it becomes “counting with laughter”, symbolising both prosperity and happiness. Leeks are hung in the house for good luck during this festive period.18
Serving any kind of sweet dessert is encouraged during Chinese New Year because it symbolises bringing a sweet life into the new year. The Hokkiens also consider certain fruits auspicious, and they are particularly fond of pineapple, ong lai in the Hokkien dialect, which literally means “fortune come”. Hence, the pineapple is often incorporated into Chinese New Year snacks and decorations. A popular snack is the pineapple tart, which comprises a buttery biscuit base topped with a pineapple jam and is often given as a gift during Chinese New Year.19
Bak kwa, also known as rougan, is a barbecued meat (usually pork) that traditionally takes the form of thin square slices.20 Originating from Fujian, China, bak kwa is a popular local snack in Singapore, particularly during Chinese New Year, where there are often long queues at the branches of famous bak kwa chains.21
Bonny Tan & Vicky Gao
1. “What’s in a Name? Everything,” Straits Times, 25 January 1990, 19. (From NewspaperSG); “Chinese New Year,” The Singapore Heritage, 3 (February 1984): 3–5. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SH)
2. “What’s in a Name? Everything”; Violet Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune,” Straits Times, 31 January 1999, 20 (From NewspaperSG); “Chinese New Year,” 3–5.
3. “What’s in a Name? Everything.”
4. “What’s in a Name? Everything”; Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune.”
5. “Tray of Luck,” Straits Times, 25 January 1990, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “What’s in a Name? Everything.”
7. “What’s in a Name? Everything”; Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune.”
8. “Chinese New Year,” 3–5.
9. “What’s in a Name? Everything”; Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune”; “Chinese New Year,” 3–5.
10. “What’s in a Name? Everything”; Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune.”
11. “What’s in a Name? Everything”; Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune.”
12. “What’s in a Name? Everything”; Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune.”
13. “What’s in a Name? Everything.”
14. “What’s in a Name? Everything.”
15. “What’s in a Name? Everything”; Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune.”
16. Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune.”
17. Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune”; “Chinese New Year,” 3–5.
18. Oon, “Eat and Strike a Fortune”; “Chinese New Year,” 3–5.
19. Natalya Molok, “18 Lucky Foods To Eat Over The CNY,” last updated 12 February 2021; “Pineapple Tarts: A Piece of Tropical Singapore,” Michelin Guide, last updated 8 February 2018.
20. Teo Pau Lin, “Fact & Fiction,” Straits Times, 5 February 2005, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Teo, “Fact & Fiction”; “Scent of Barbecued Pork Draws Crowds,” Straits Times, 10 February 1996, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at July 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.