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The food of the Lunar New Year

Clearvoice The food of the Lunar New Year article Clearvoice The food of the Lunar New Year article

Today, we are delighted to hear from Karen, a Cantonese speaking interpreter, about the Lunar New Year traditions and food in her native Hong Kong

In 2023, Sunday 22 January marks the first day of the year in a lunar calendar and the start of spring. This year is the Year of the Rabbit, which symbolises longevity, peace and prosperity. Lunar New Year celebrations start from the New Year’s Eve and end on the 15th day with a lantern festival. It is a time for family reunions and gatherings with friends and relatives.

Red Pocket (Photo courtesy of Arthur F)

There are many traditions of celebrating Lunar New Year in Hong Kong, including red pockets known as “Lai See” (利是 in Cantonese), wishing each other good luck, health, and fortune (for example, wishing people good fortune by saying: “Kung Hei Fat Choy” (恭喜發財 in Cantonese), spring couplets (new year decorations known as “Fai Chun” (揮春 in Cantonese), candy box, Lunar New Year flowers and plants (typical examples are: orchids, peach blossoms, narcissus, gladiolus, salix caprea, mandarin and tangerine plants etc.), lion and dragon dances, fireworks and firecrackers, and festive food for Lunar New Year. Each of these traditions carries an auspicious meaning like happiness, prosperity, progress in studies, good luck, health and fortune.

Food is the centerpiece of Lunar New Year celebrations and I would like to share with you some of the food that I eat during Lunar New Year:

Glutinous Rice Cake (Photo courtesy of Irene W)

Glutinous Rice Cake, also known as New Year’s Cake, is a sweet cake typically made with glutinous rice flour and cane sugar. It is pronounced in Cantonese as “Nin Gou” (年糕) and is homophonic with the Cantonese words for “year” and “high”, meaning that your life and fortune will be better and better year on year. We usually coat slices of a glutinous rice cake with eggs whisked and seasoned with salt and white pepper, pan-fry them, and serve them to the table. They are crispy outside, and soft and sticky inside after pan-fried.

Turnip Cakes (Photo courtesy of Irene W)

Turnip Cakes (or radish cakes) are my favorite food to eat during Lunar New Year. Turnip Cake is a popular dim sum served all year round in Cantonese restaurants. It is also a popular savory new year pudding. In Cantonese, we call it “lo baak goh” (蘿蔔糕). Like glutinous rice cakes, turnip cakes also carry a symbolic meaning of advancement in wealth, health and fortune. Our homemade turnip cake is made with shredded white radish, dried mushroom, dried scallops, Chinese sausages, Chinese preserved meat, dried shrimps, rice flour and cornstarch.  We usually pan-fry slices of the cake before consumption. They are absolutely delicious!

Gok Zai (Photo courtesy of Irene W)

Cantonese Sweet Fried Dumplings, called “Gok Zai” or “Yau Gok” (角仔/油角) in Cantonese. These deep-fried dumplings are believed to bring about wealth and good fortune in the year ahead. They are sweet and crunchy with fillings of sweetened coconut flakes, roasted peanut granules, roasted sesame seeds, and sugar wrapped in glutinous rice dough. The dumplings are shaped to resemble ancient Chinese currency, sycee or yuanbao, symbolising money and wealth.

Smiling Sesame Balls are a popular snack during Lunar New Year. It is made with flour, sugar, egg, white sesame seeds and baking soda. In Cantonese, we call it “siu hau zou” (笑口棗). It is so named because when deep fried, the dough ball will crack open like someone laughing. It carries an auspicious meaning of being able to stay happy throughout the year. Smiling sesame balls are sweet with a light and crisp texture – light and fluffy on the inside; golden, crispy and caramelised on the outside. 

Finally, I wish you all a happy and prosperous Lunar New Year of the Rabbit!