Explanation of the Lunar New Year 2024 in five symbolic dishes Arts and culture news

It’s the Year of the Dragon, and the celebrations are about to begin.

Starting on Saturday, hundreds of millions of people around the world will celebrate the International Day Lunar New Year. Families will come together for multi-day celebrations in multiple countries, including China, North and South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam, as well as among diaspora communities in other countries.

Food is an essential part of the Lunar New Year experience with signature dishes prepared especially for the occasion.

Here’s a look at some of the Lunar New Year dishes and what they symbolize:

Guests throw down an 88kg plate of yusheng or raw fish during a "If hello" Pre-Lunar New Year dinner in Singapore on January 8, 2016.
Guests toss an 88-kg (194-pound) plate of yusheng, or raw fish, during dinner before the Lunar New Year in Singapore (File: Edgar So/Reuters)

Yusheng

Colorful raw fish salad with fresh vegetables is very popular in Malaysia and Singapore. It is believed to have been introduced by Cantonese and Teochew immigrants. In Cantonese, the word for fish is similar to the word for abundance.

Raw fish fillets are a staple of the dish, and salmon has long been a favorite.

Megan Poh, a Singapore-based designer and illustrator, told Al Jazeera that putting together Yusheng can be an exciting group ritual for families.

According to the 24-year-old, auspicious mantras are often chanted as each ingredient is added while assembling the yusheng. Most of the chants are wordplay on ingredient names.

Grated carrots and lemon add a spicy, earthy taste, while crushed golden crackers and peanuts add a crunch. The spices are sprinkled, the oil is drizzled, and then comes the most exciting part: family and friends gather around the plate with large chopsticks to stir the items together in a ritual also called the prosperity toss.

In fact, Yusheng is also called lo hei, which is Cantonese for “ejaculation.” “Apparently, the higher you throw, the richer or luckier you are in the new year,” Poh said.

A resident drops off banh chung, or rice cakes, to cook in Trầnh Khủc village, outside Hanoi, January 14, 2012.
A resident drops banh chong, or rice cakes, into a cooking pot in Trầnh Khủc village outside Hanoi (File: Kham/Reuters)

Chung cake

Vietnamese student Toc Ngo said that on the occasion of the Lunar New Year, homes in Vietnam are decorated in red and yellow, which are “the colors of wealth and luxury in our culture.”

Workplaces and schools take an eight- to 10-day holiday, also known as Tet holiday in Vietnam. “We have big plates with different types of food,” she said, explaining that these items are also offered on the ancestral altar.

Banh Chung is a signature dish of the Lunar New Year in Vietnam. It consists of square layers of aromatic glutinous rice, tender beans and pork.

A man rolls banh chung, or rice cakes, for sale before Tet, the traditional Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival, in the village of Trầnh Khúc, outside Hanoi, Vietnam
A man rolls banh chung for sale before Tet, the traditional Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival, in the village of Trầnh Khục outside Hanoi (File: Kham/Reuters)

Thuc, who is studying business administration in Qatar, said the layers of diverse elements in Banh Chung symbolize natural elements such as animals and plants living in harmony with humans.

“You can use banana leaves to tie them together with string,” Thok said. The banh chung is then placed in a large pot and steamed for up to 10 hours until it is cooked into bright green squares with a delicious flavour. The stickiness of rice is a distinctive property of rice cakes. It is also said to be symbolic of the land or land of Vietnam.

“It’s a big tradition to gather around a big bowl of banh chung on New Year’s Eve to watch it cook all night long, so your whole family eats banh chung throughout the Tet holiday,” she said.

Tteokguk or chopped rice cake soup is a traditional Korean dish that is eaten during the Korean New Year celebration in a bowl on the table.
Tutukguk, or chopped rice cake soup, is a traditional Korean dish eaten during the Korean New Year celebration (Alleko/Stock image/Getty)

Ttokjok

This delicious rice cake and meat broth soup is a staple of Korean cuisine and a signature dish during the Lunar New Year. The broth is mostly beef based. Seaweed and green onions can be added to the dish.

Traditionally, rice cakes were not consumed daily because rice was a rare and expensive commodity and was reserved for special occasions, such as the Lunar New Year, called Seollal in Korea.

Tteokguk is one of the foods offered to ancestors during a traditional ritual called charye.

Chewy rice cakes are small and round. They are believed to resemble coins and symbolize wealth and prosperity. It is also white in color, and is a symbol of purity and cleanliness as Koreans celebrate the beginning of the new year.

A worker's reaction as he pulls a tray of pineapple tarts out of the oven at the central kitchen of traditional Peranakan sweets HarriAnns in Singapore, April 20, 2018.
A worker pulls a tray of pineapple tarts from an oven in the central kitchen of traditional Peranakan sweet shop HarriAnns in Singapore (File: Lauren Pereira/Reuters)

Pineapple pancakes

Pineapple tarts are especially popular as a Lunar New Year dessert in Taiwan, and are now popular in other parts of Asia – especially Malaysia and Singapore – as well as other parts of the world.

Once again, the importance of the dish lies in the words and sounds. The Chinese word for pineapple, ong lai, sounds similar to the word for “luck to come” in the Hokkien dialect. This is what makes butter cookies a must-have for celebrations, as families stock up on supplies for festive visitors or give them as gifts to friends and co-workers.

The pineapple has also become a political symbol of Taiwanese identity during the autonomous territory’s growing tensions with China. In 2021, Beijing Import banned Of fruit from Taiwan.

INTERACTIVE_CHINA_NEWYEAR_FEB10-1707305478
(Al Jazeera)

Chai choi

Poh, a Singapore-based designer, prepares meals with her immediate family and uncle for a large family gathering every Lunar New Year. Her family sits around the house wrapping spiced meat rolls, according to her aunt’s recipe.

Once the family is together, they sit, talk, eat, and watch movies together.

“Before my grandmother died, she used to make this Cantonese dish called chai,” she said.

Chai is a vegetarian dish containing ingredients such as fermented tofu, mushrooms, and cabbage. It also contains sebum, which looks like strands of hair when dry, and has the texture of vermicelli when wet, Poh explained. Fat Choy is also synonymous with gaining wealth, Poh said.

The chewy glass noodles added to the chai represent longevity. Grated carrots also represent good luck.

This dish also helps balance out the heaviness of other, often meat-based, foods eaten during Lunar New Year, Poh said.

Growing up, she said, food helped Pooh get through awkward moments during Lunar New Year celebrations, which can be overwhelming due to large family gatherings. “Especially when it does not conform to typical traditional standards,” she said, such as pursuing “a different profession than what is traditionally expected.”

“Now that I’m older, I appreciate this occasion more and find myself participating in it a little more,” she said. She now hopes to learn how to prepare traditional Lunar New Year recipes.

“I think a lot of these recipes are lost, like my pu pu (grandmother) chai recipe, after she died, I never learned it, and I don’t think any of my aunts know how to make it. You can find a recipe online, but it’s different.

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