Chinese New Year is just around the corner and like almost every Asian celebrations, there is bound to be plates after plates of irresistible, mouthwatering food on the table. Since we only celebrate it once a year, guilty pleasure kicks in and there goes the strict diet you were diligently following for the past few months. Before we realize it, our weighing scale delivers that bad news.
The traditional Chinese community has always had its fair share of unusual delicacies, all with their fair share of traditional recipes, symbolism and of course health benefits. Some of these recipes have been passed down from generation to generation deriving from the various dynasties in ancient China, all the way to down to our modern era and will continue to do so in the generations to come. Here are a number of dishes which you may not have tried during Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year Dish #1: Gok Jai
Don’t be fooled, this is not a fried dumpling. Gok Jai is a Chinese delicacy often served during Chinese New Year. Traditionally, this curry puff lookalike is stuffed with sugar, peanuts and coconut, much like the pancakes you find, served hot in a night market. Regardless of how simple it looks, it is time consuming to make, from preparing the filling to folding the dough, especially for beginners whose hands are not accustomed to folding the dough properly. This would probably explain why some may be unfamiliar with this delicacy.
Over the years, many have improvised and have tried to make the Gok Jai with their own style and taste. Usually, the Gok Jai is deep fried but for health conscious individuals, it is baked to reduce the calorie content. Hence, some Gok Jai are appear lightly with a flaky texture, others which are deep fried have a golden brown appearance and crunchy. Some still carry on the tradition of filling it with sweet and savory filling whereas others prefer a much meatier filling.
Nevertheless, the Gok Jai is shaped like a dumpling which symbolizes wealth. This is because the dumpling is shaped like the Chinese silver sycee, a currency used in ancient China more than a thousand years ago.
Check out Gok Jai (Kok Jai) Recipe here:
Chinese New Year Dish #2: Buddha’s Delight
This dish is vege galore. It is filled with nothing but vegetables with not a pinch of minced meat in it, catering towards the vegetarian Chinese community. Aside from the name Buddha’s Delight, it is also known as “luo han zhai” (Mandarin) and “ lo han jai” (Cantonese).
Traditionally, this dish is enjoyed by vegetarian Buddhist monks, who have taken an oath never to eat meat. Over the years, this dish has spread to various parts of the world, becoming a popular vegetarian delicacy, resulting in others having their own spin on the dish itself. Some version of this full vegetarian dish has even incorporated tofu in it.
This dish is much like a Chinese salad, whereby any combination of vegetables and vegan based ingredients tend to compliment each other well, hence making it a relatively easy dish to make at home.
The dish generally symbolizes purification, to counteract the effects of the meat eaten the year before. It also signifies good luck and wealth since the dish itself consist of many dry and fresh ingredients.
Check out Buddha’s Delight Recipe here:
Chinese New Year Dish #3: The 8 Treasure Rice
Also known as Babaofan, this sticky delicacy has various versions as to how it came about. One version states that it was made in 1600 BC to commemorate eight warriors who under the command of King Wu, bravely fought and triumphed over the ruler of Zhou. Another story of origin brings us back to the Song Dynasty where a fleeing general on the brink of starving to death, stumbled across a rat’s winter store of grains, nuts and fruits. In his own battle helmet, he managed to cook himself the very first 8 Treasure Rice and survived along with the recipe.
The 8 Treasure Rice is traditionally sweet, made of glutinous rice and decorated with various dried fruits and nuts. The trimmings may include red dates, lotus seeds, dried longan, pearl barley and sweet osmanthus flowers. Similar to many other Chinese dishes on this list, many have tried to add their own style and spin to the dish, trying to make it as original as they can. Today, the 8 Treasure Rice may even be served with savory rather than sweet treats, replacing the said ingredients with shrimps, preserved meat and even vegetables.
The 8 Treasure Rice is as complex as it gets and requires much preparation to make. This is why it is not often served when we visit the homes of our relatives and friends but during reunion dinners. Aside from pleasing the taste buds, the 8 Treasure Rice brings therapeutic effects as well, especially when it is made with traditional ingredients with nuts and dried fruits.
Check out the 8 Treasure Rice Recipe here:
Chinese New Year Dish #4: Tang Yuan (Sweet Ball Rice)
With a fast glance at this dish, you would assume it to be a bowl of fish balls, but you are sadly mistaken. The Tang Yuan (known in South China) or Yuanxiao (known in North China) is a delicacy often served during the Lantern festival, and other special occasions that involve family gatherings, Chinese New Year included. It consists of small dumpling balls made of glutinous rice flour and filled with rose petals, bean paste, walnut, sugar, sesame, jujube paste and more.
Since it is known differently in the North and the South of China, it comes with no surprise that this dish has multiple story of origin. Some say that is was first served during the 4th century of the Eastern Jin Dynasty and carried on to become a popular delicacy in the Song and Tang Dynasty as well. Another version of origin stated that it was first served in Southern Song Dynasty and originated in Ningbo in east China’s Zhejiang Province.
Traditionally, this dish is made with sweet fillings and sweetened soup, however, over the years some version have incorporated fillings such as vegetable, dried shrimps and minced meat, changing the taste from sweet to savory and giving the Tang Yuan a salty spin. Quite often this dish is boiled (as per illustrations above), however there are alterations where the balls are fried or steamed.
Like many others dishes in the Chinese culture, the Tang Yuan has its own symbolism as well. It symbolizes wholeness, togetherness, unity and completeness. In fact, the pronunciation of “tang yuan” is very much similar to “tuan yuan” which means reunion. Making it a perfect dish served during family reunions like the Chinese New Year.
Check out Tang Yuen Recipe here:
Chinese New Year Dish #5: Buddha Jumping Over the Wall
As hilarious as the name of this dish may sound, this dish is actually one of the most anticipated dishes every Chinese New Year. The Buddha Jumping Over the Wall or “fó tiào qiáng” (in Mandarin) is a concoction of several high quality ingredient such as shark fin, abalone, sea cucumber, hair vegetables, chicken, pork ribs, Chinese flower mushrooms and more. Due to the number of ingredients used, it takes up to 2 to 3 days of preparation before being served in a bowl, setting it apart from many other soup based delicacies.
Like all the other dishes on this list, the Buddha Jumping Over the Wall has many story of origins. The most common among them involves a scholar who decided to stop near a monastery to cook the soup and the aroma spread to where the monks were meditating. Although the monks were forbidden to consume meat, the smell of the aroma from the soup was too tempting to resist and so they jumped over the fence to try some.
Today, this dish symbolizes wealth, prosperity and status within the Chinese community and hold the Guinness World Record for being the most expensive soup served in a restaurant. However, it has also raised some ethical and environmental concerns due to the use of some of these ingredients, like the shark’s fins, sea cucumber, abalone and more.
Check out Buddha Jumping Over the Wall Recipe here:
We at CatchThatBus would like to wish all a happy and prosperous Chinese New Year.