By David Ngo
Feb 1, 2022
THE LUNAR NEW YEAR IS one of the world’s largest and most vibrant celebrations. While the customary red envelopes and firecrackers can be found all over Asia-Pacific, each country has its own distinctive way of ushering in a year of fortune and prosperity. Auspicious foods to celebrate Lunar New Year may overlap in origin, but the local presentation varies by culture. Here are 8 culinary traditions beloved in our region to start your Tiger year off right.
As one of Asia’s proudest and most prosperous melting pots, Singapore’s Lunar New Year celebrations are suitably multicultural. Dishes on the feast tables often reflect Indian, Malay, and Peranakan flavors, making for an especially colorful—and incredibly delicious—feast. One item that’s an absolute must is yusheng, a salad of raw fish, radish, carrot and other crunchy veggies in a tangy dressing. Lo hei, the Cantonese name for the dish, roughly translates to “tossing good fortune,” which is why you’re expected to toss these ingredients way up in the air for good luck.
Locals in Taiwan love pineapple cakes made with fragrant fruit grown right on the island all year long, but they’re considered particularly auspicious around the Lunar New Year. Ong lai, or “pineapple” in Hokkien, can also roughly translate as “prosperity coming,” making these perfect for anyone hoping for good fortune in the coming year. With their rich, buttery pastry and jammy filling, these tasty treats also happen to be a perfect celebration food.
While Thailand celebrates its own New Year – Songkran – with buckets of water and mayhem a few months later, the Lunar New Year is still a particularly special time in the Land of Smiles. Chinatowns in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and other cities are awash in red and gold. One especially fortuitous tradition Bangkokians take part in is dining on dim-sum. Dumplings are a perfect party food and the traditional shape of siu mai resembles an ancient Chinese gold ingot, which is why they’re thought to bring wealth and prosperity in the New Year.
Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is celebrated on almost the same timeline as the Chinese Lunar New Year. No Tet celebration would be complete without banh chung. These savory parcels of sticky rice, slow-braised pork belly, and mung beans wrapped in banana leaves are a true labor of love to make. Supposedly, an ancient Vietnamese king once told his sons that whoever could devise the best dish for Tet would inherit his crown. Banh chung were the clear winner, which is why they’re still enjoyed to this day.
Much like Singapore, Malaysia’s ethnically and culturally diverse makeup results in all sorts of unique traditions for the Lunar New Year. Except to see a number of the same dishes, such as steamed whole fish or crispy roast pork, that you might find on a banquet table in mainland China, but often with a Malaysian twist. Giant prawns are particularly popular, since the Cantonese word har sounds like the onomatopoeia for laughter—something everyone hopes for in a joyous New Year.
Longevity noodles, which represent a long life, are staple Lunar New Year foods in many countries. One popular Filipino version is pancit bihon, which consists of a heaping wok full of rice noodles, chicken, and vegetables in a savory soy-based sauce. For the best luck, be sure not to cut or break up the noodles—you want them as long as possible. Other classics you can expect to see on a feast table in Manila are lumpia and tikoy, or glutinous rice treats often colored brilliant green or purple with pandan or ube.
With its sizable Chinese expat community, Australia — also a great melting pot of foods thanks to its immigration tradition — celebrates the Lunar New Year with gusto. For many Chinese-Australians, this is the perfect time to reconnect with family heritage. As in both mainland China and other parts of the diaspora, nian gao, or sweet sticky rice cakes are a beloved staple. They symbolize prosperity and progress since the words mean “higher year” and are interpreted as raising oneself up.
Adjacent to southern China, you know the food in Hong Kong is good, so we’re deviating from the subject here and talking aesthetics. With its combination of glittering skyscrapers, murals by world-famous street artists, lush jungles, and secluded beaches and islands, Hong Kong is always a visually stunning place. During the Lunar New Year festivities, however, the SAR kicks things up a notch with dazzling decorations. Perhaps the most spectacular scene is the city’s flower markets, which come alive with a bevy of bouquets. Swing by the market in Victoria Park to stock up on truly stunning floral arrangements.