Lunar New Year celebrations are in full swing and delicious snacks have started to pile up in the pantry. Some of my all-time favourites include buttery pineapple tarts, spicy shrimp rolls and sweet nian gao (sticky cake). In fact, these traditional goodies are not just delicious; the Chinese put a lot of thought into the symbolism that goes into each snack. From wealth to good fortune, here’s a simple guide on how to eat your way to happiness this year.
It’s no wonder these are such a hit during Lunar New Year – these rich golden tarts are a symbol of good fortune. In the Hokkien dialect, pineapple is ‘ong lai,’ which sounds like ‘prosperity has come.’
The most popular variety is an open-faced tart topped with sweet pineapple jam, however, some pineapple tarts are also made to look like gold nuggets or ingots. Done right, the pastry should light and buttery, and the pineapple jam should have just the right touch of sweetness and tartness that leaves you craving for more.
These egg rolls have such a poetic name because they were once used to hide secret messages between lovers in ancient China. Today, they are considered auspicious because they look like gold bars. Baked with sugar, flour, eggs and coconut milk, they are wafer-thin, crispy and have the perfect crunch.
Shrimp are believed to represent happiness while the tiny rolls symbolise wealth, because they look so much like gold bars. Made with dried shrimp, sambal chilli, shallots, garlic and sugar, these spicy and sweet treats are completely addictive.
‘Bak Kwa’ means ‘good fortune ahead’ in Cantonese. This caramelised dried jerky is barbecued until it turns a deep rich red – an extremely auspicious colour believed to ward off evil in Chinese culture. Traditional bak kwa is made of pork, although you can get chicken or beef options today as well. I personally love the bacon bak kwa for its juiciness.
‘Nian Gao’ translates to ‘sticky cake.’ However, it also sounds like the Mandarin expression for ‘rising higher each year’ and is thus a promise of better things to come. This delicious glutinous rice cake is traditionally sold with words of blessing on top.
Want to make your own Nian Gao? Executive Chinese Chef Lee Hui Ngai of Cassia shares his favourite recipe with me!
Chef Lee’s Secret Nian Gao Recipe
Glutinous Rice Flour – 450g
Coconut Cream – 120g
Flour Starch – 180g
Oil – 55g
Coconut Sugar – 120g
Sugar – 540g
Water – 630g
- Boil the water and dissolve the coconut sugar and sugar. Allow to cool.
- In a separate bowl, combine the glutinous rice flour, starch and oil. Mix till smooth.
- Slowly add the cooled sugar syrup to the flour and oil mixture. Mix till smooth.
- Add the coconut cream to the mixture and strain.
- Place the mixture in a pan and steam for an hour.