The Lunar New Year is almost upon us. In fact, the year of the snake starts this coming Sunday. New Year foods can vary from region to region and from household to household. There is jai, of course, eaten on the first day (and of which I discussed in further detail last year). One thing that is seen in almost every home is New Year Cake, or neen gao. We wrote about this food a couple of years ago mentioning that the word for cake, “gao,” is a homonym for “tall,” so neen gao means “tall year” or, more accurately, a very good year. In general, New Year foods are supposed to reference prosperity in some way.
Neen gao, southern style
In the south, neen gao, which is made out of glutinous rice, is usually sweet, and is, at least in Toronto, sold in tin foil pie plates at Chinese restaurants and bakeries. Most families buy them a few days in advance and keep them in the fridge. Neen gao is often breakfast on New Year’s Day, often accompanied with daikon pancakes (lo bak gao). In the north, neen gao is stir-fried, and can be savoury. It is often cooked with vegetables and meats, served very much like Shanghainese chow mein. Neen gao and lo bak gao are also available year round and is part of most dim sum menus.
Sesame Balls: Known as jeen dui in Cantonese, sesame balls symbolize growing wealth – these pastries are fairly small uncooked and swell up as they are fried. They vary in size – many are just a bit bigger than a ping-pong ball, comparable to a Timbit, while others are much bigger – almost the size of a tennis ball. They tend to be hollow inside.
On the healthier side, there are, of course, mandarin oranges. According to my parents, they are supposed to symbolize gold and are available at most East Asian supermarkets. Many people don’t eat just eat them, but keep one or two next to their beds for luck. Whole chicken and whole fish are are also eaten – in my family, my parents would pan-fry whole fish (and I mean whole fish in the old world sense), though chicken would more likely be bought cooked from a barbecue place.
What’s my favourite New Year’s food? I actually don’t really have one (though if I had to choose, I’d probably say northern style stir-fried neen gao). Instead, I have a favourite tradition that has been part of my family for nearly 30 years. It’s our annual dinner and “spin of luck” at the CN Tower’s 360 Restaurant!