Lucky Calories for the Chinese New Year

August 26, 2018

Growing up in a pure Filipino family, Chinese New Year for me meant two things: tikoy and calories! It meant waking up to the luxurious smell of egg-dipped tikoy slices frying in robust brown butter. For me, tikoy is the tastiest way to say “Kung Hei Fat Choi!”

2013, according to the Chinese Zodiac, is the year of the Water Snake. It’s purported to bring in a period of harmony, marriage, and healthy children. But that’s if you follow numerous rituals and traditions, apparently. Since I don’t have a single drop of Chinese blood (and because I like to eat!), I focused my research on the symbolism of certain dishes, and how they should be served in order to bring you luck throughout the year. After all, what tradition is more fun than wolfing down calories that promise good fortune and prosperity?

Below are some noteworthy dishes, and the symbolism and superstitions that accompany them.

1. Deep-Fried or Roasted Whole Chicken/Squab (with head and feet)

Chickens should be served whole, with the head and feet intact. They can be roasted, deep-fried, or braised. In authentic Chinese cuisine, squabs (more commonly known as pigeons) are used instead of chickens. They are considered a delicacy, and have a gamier taste. Squabs are usually braised in a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine, and star anise, and then roasted until the skin is crisp. In local Chinese restaurants, squab is usually served with prawn crackers (kropek).

What does it symbolize?

Completeness. Family togetherness. In layman’s terms, the family that eats a whole chicken/squab together, stays together.

Just don’t…

Chop the head of that damn thing, even though you’re scared of its beady eyes staring directly at you. Unless you don’t want to include a family member in all that togetherness (in-laws don’t count).

2. Jiaozi (Pork or Vegetable Dumplings)

A must-have this Chinese New Year, Jiaozi generally consist of minced meat and/or vegetable filling in a thinly-rolled piece of dough. The dumpling is then sealed, and shaped into an ingot (ancient Chinese money). It is usually boiled, steamed, or pan-fried. It’s traditionally eaten at midnight on Chinese New Year (if you can wait that long).

What does it symbolize?

Prosperity and wealth. Well, they are specifically formed to resemble money. You might also want to watch out for a golden coin hidden inside the dumplings. It’s believed to bring extra luck to the diner who finds it.

Just don’t…

Bite into one, and then swallow in an instant. You wouldn’t want that lucky coin coming out of your other end, would you?

3. Steamed or Fried Fish

Just like poultry, fish must be served whole, with its head, fins, and tail intact. Although fish is sometimes served fried, I find that nothing compares to an expertly steamed one. Especially when it involves a fresh grouper (lapu-lapu), served piping hot and in a pool of light soy sauce, minced ginger, and sliced onion leeks.

What does it symbolize?

Serving the fish whole symbolizes a fulfilled life, because the tail and head represent happy endings and beginnings. Also, the Chinese word for fish (yu) sounds like the Chinese equivalent for “surplus”.

Just don’t…

Finish the underside of the fish (the one lying flat on the surface of the plate). It’s deliberately left uneaten to attract an abundant food supply for the whole year.

(However, I can’t imagine refraining from eating half of a perfectly cooked fish. That would be a nightmare for someone like me who just can’t put the fork down! And I was taught to eat everything on my plate, so…)

4. Tikoy or Nian Gao (Chinese New Year’s Cake)

Tikoy is a sweet and sticky snack made from glutinous rice paste. It is often sliced thinly, dipped in beaten egg, and pan-fried in oil till golden brown. In our house, we normally fry it in butter, and its taste and aroma complement the tikoy very well.

What does it symbolize?

The sweetness symbolizes a rich, sweet life, and the sticky texture signifies family unity. The round shape is said to represent family reunions.

Just don’t…

Forget to send a box of tikoy, or more if you’re feeling a bit generous, to your friends, colleagues and families! Everybody’s expecting to receive at least one box during Chinese New Year. Apart from that, there are no restrictions or rules for eating my favorite Chinese delicacy. Yahoo!

5. Egg Noodles Stir-Fry/ Soup

Noodles are a staple in Chinese cuisine. During Chinese New Year, only long, uncut noodles are served. They can be stir-fried in a wok, or plunged into soup, along with vegetables that also have different symbolisms. They say that the more ingredients you add, the luckier the dish becomes.

What does it symbolize?

Long, uncut noodles symbolize long life, and are thus called “longevity noodles”. Egg noodles are thought to signify fertility as well as long life, because eggs are a traditional symbol of the former.

Just don’t…

Bite off the strands. Cutting the noodles is thought to be akin to cutting life short. The proper way to eat the noodles is to slurp them as noisily as you can.


Lastly, I know I have not covered everything, so I asked the Chinese members of our team about the food superstitions and beliefs they’re familiar with.

1. “When eating hard-boiled eggs, eat the WHOLE egg. Never eat only half of it.” – Katherine Jao

2. “Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in a rice bowl; that’s only done when you offer food for the dead. When old Chinese people see you do this in restaurants, they won’t think twice about scolding you!” – Steph Dy

3. “Don’t tap the wok or any cooking pan with your cooking spatula, because it‘s like calling for bad luck.” – Katherine Jao

4. “My mom used to tell me that if I leave grains of rice in my bowl, my future husband would have pimples all over his face.” – Steph Dy

5. “Do not sing while stirring a boiling soup, or else you’d end up widowed.” – Mylene Chung

6. “During my childhood, my mom burned this Chinese paper, and put it in a glass with hot water. She made me drink it every Chinese New Year, saying it’s the Chinese version of holy water.” – Mylene Chung

Totally absurd or shockingly true? You be the judge!

[Images via gettyimages]
[Tikoy image via Ang Sarap]
[Thumbnail via BlackBeltReview]

Hanna Sanchez Hanna Sanchez

A self-proclaimed chef with baking fiasco tendencies, Hanna is diagnosed with the addiction of buying cookbooks that she never reads. Aside from forever cheating South Beach, Paleo, GM, and the Lemonade diet, she loves to stay awake at night to prepare herself for airline companies' midnight promos with a large serving of Pic-A chips (cheese-flavored!!!!) under her study table. 

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3 comments in this post SHOW

3 responses to “Lucky Calories for the Chinese New Year”

  1. Johann says:

    This year is my first Lunar New Year here in KL, and they give out mandarins (oranges) instead of tikoy.

  2. The best yung shot of burnt Chinese paper! haha

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