Auspicious food for good fortune

Now everyone joins in the lo hei or toss for good fortune
with a platter of Yee Sang
As the Chinese community celebrate the Lunar New Year, their desire for wealth and prosperity is heightened because they believe how you start the year will impact your life for the rest of the year.  So you will often hear the phrase, “Huat ah!” which means, “prosper,” in Teochew and Hokkien dialects.  They also believe that saying auspicious phrases will usher in a year of greater prosperity so every effort is made to say good words with positive meanings!
In the Malaysian “open house” tradition, the Chinese visit and present each other with a pair of mandarin oranges or kum, a word that sounds like ‘gold’ in Chinese language.  Feasting is a universal way to celebrate festivals but the Chinese have taken it to unique heights of taboos and traditions.  During this season, festive dishes are given auspicious names or prepared with ingredients that sound auspicious.  Ordinary ingredients are given auspicious names with significant symbolic meanings that augur well for abundant blessings of happiness, prosperity, longevity and even fertility. 
My serving of Ho See Fatt Choy at a Lunar New Year
banquet held at a local hotel - My chopsticks are holding
up strands of braised black moss!  See auspicious
ingredients: dried oysters [Left] and dried mushrooms
Over the years, Chinese chefs and restaurant owners have come up with witty words and phrases for dishes and food ingredients with good meanings to enhance and stimulate positive energy flow to ensure a prosperous New Year.  Besides seasonal fresh ingredients like leeks and arrow roots, popular ingredients for dishes include dried seafood.  So when you dine out this Lunar New Year, look out for ingredients that are chosen for their symbolism, luxury status, its role in historical events or simply because they taste great. 
A typical menu in New Year banquets will include seafood, poultry, meat and vegetables.  A fish dish is often honoured by an auspicious name like Fu Kwai Yau Yee that bodes well for a year of abundant good fortune.  A chicken item may be given a fancy name like, Kum Kai Po Hei which means, ‘golden chicken shouts good news.’  A popular prosperity dish made with braised black moss, dried oysters and mushrooms is, Ho See Fatt Choy.  Prawns are a must as they symbolize ‘happiness’ and because the Chinese word for prawn, har sounds like cheerful laughter: Ha! Ha!
We are also familiar with Yee Sang or raw fish, a popular New Year tradition in Malaysia and Singapore.  In Chinese, Yee, the word for fish, also means ‘abundance’ or ‘surplus’ so eating this dish symbolizes abundance, prosperity and vitality.  This however, is a tradition created in this part of the world to meet the desires of the business community to toss Yee Sang for greater prosperity! 
Yee Sang is usually served as a starter on a platter piled with fresh carrot and radish julienne, pickled leeks, ginger strips, beads of pomelo, crushed roasted peanuts, toasted sesame seeds and crunchy crisps, designed in bright colours.  Slivers of raw fish are added before being drizzled with a special vegetable and plum sauce.  Part of the fun in eating Yee Sang is to Lo Hei, the act of saying auspicious wishes like “Huat ah!” while tossing the salad together and lifting the chopsticks higher and higher to achieve greater success in the New Year!
An attractively arranged Poon Choi for a
Lunar New Year meal
Another elaborate dish, Poon Choi, is said to have originated in Hong Kong during the late Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) when Mongol troops invaded China and the young Emperors, brothers Zhao Shi and Zhao Bing, fled to the area around Guangdong and Hong Kong.  Local people welcomed the brothers and their imperial entourage and to feed them, they collected and cooked a variety of their best ingredients.  

They did not have a bowl large enough to serve all the food but the only large receptacle was a big wooden basin, traditionally used to wash clothes.  This was how the big basin banquet or Poon Choi was invented. 
Poon Choi soon became associated with events that involved the whole community, usually held in a courtyard or open space in the village.  In traditional village celebrations like religious festivals, rituals and weddings, Poon Choi was served in metal wash basins simmering over stoves, large enough to feed 10 to 12 persons.  Eating from a common bowl is a symbol of village cohesion that removed class and status differences as everyone was considered equal. 

Neen gow or kueh bakul are traditionally made in
containers lined with fragrant banana leaves
A basin banquet may comprise between 9 to 18 courses of various ingredients that are separately cooked by stir-frying, deep-frying, boiling, braising or stewing.  Each layer may include high-value and exotic ingredients like prawns, fish, roast meat, mushrooms, dried oysters, goose feet and vegetables.  These ingredients are then assembled layer-by-layer in the basin and further stewed for laborious hours to bring out exquisite flavours that are fit for Emperors. 

The art of eating Poon Choi is to savour layer-by-layer and it is good manners to help yourself to what is within easy reach instead of stirring or digging to the bottom of the basin.  The aim is to savour each ingredient in separate courses and allow all the natural flavours and nutritious goodness to steep into ingredients on the bottom layer.  Since the 1990’s the humble basin banquet became a dish popular in Cantonese restaurants for weddings and the Lunar New Year. 

Pineapple tarts - in various shapes - are a staple item
in every Lunar New Year to welcome in good fortune!
And for greater prosperity and success, the Chinese eat neen gow (Cantonese) or kueh bakul, a sweet and sticky steamed glutinous rice pudding.  This is very auspicious as eating it means you will, neen, neen gow, or ‘advance in your career with each year!’  

This sweet was traditionally served to the kitchen god six days before the dawn of the New Year when he leaves to give his annual report to the god of heaven.  It is believed that the sticky cake would seal his lips and stop him from giving a bad report about the family!

As you celebrate the Lunar New Year of the Goat, be sure to have some pineapple tarts as its sweetness symbolizes a comfortable life.  To the Chinese the pineapple is a symbol of prosperity as its name ong lai (Hokkien/Teowchew dialects) literally says, ‘welcome good fortune.’  So usher in good fortune as you savour some auspicious food!

A version of this article was published in the March 2015 issue of The Iskandarian

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