THERE is a whole lot of eating going on every Chinese New Year (CNY). Much like all other festivities in Malaysia, food is central in welcoming the New Year, and the feasting goes on for 16 days.
Some even started before CNY and will go on having yee sang after CNY.
“Food is very important for CNY as it is part of the Chinese culture to have a reunion dinner where family members gather and celebrate the memorable occasion together at the dining table,” explains
Chef Heng Sze Hooi, the assistant chef at the Zuan Yuan Chinese Restaurant at the One World Hotel in Bandar Utama, Petaling Jaya.
Chef Heng went into the food and beverage industry at the tender age of 17 and climbed his way up, amassing 20 years of culinary experience.
At Zuan Yuan Chinese Restaurant, he is responsible for assisting in steering the restaurant’s culinary operations as well as devising innovative creations to delight diners. He has held and excelled at his designation since the pre-opening of the hotel.
With a relentless passion for quality gastronomy, this master chef has a penchant for using only fresh ingredients in his cooking. His personal favourite ingredient is shrimp and the affinity is reflected in his signature dish, the Fresh Water Prawn with King Soy Sauce.
According to Chef Heng, the Chinese salad or better known as “yee sang” is fundamental as it is believed to bring an abundance of luck for a prosperous year ahead when tossed before eaten.
There is also a lot of emphasis on vegetables and fish during CNY.
“This is due to the auspicious connotations which it symbolises. Fish signifies surplus and sea moss for prosperity,” says Chef Heng, 40, who hails from Kedah.
While each of the the different Chinese communities (Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, etc) have their own practices, Chef Heng says hotel restaurants tend to offer Cantonese (Hong Kong style) cuisine.
What is practised by each family depends on their community, beliefs and upbringing, and these days what is convenient for the family as well.
“For instance, some will opt for a vegetarian meal on the first day and yee sang only on the seventh day since it is regarded as ‘yan yat’ (birthday for the human race)
“Steamed chicken is one of the dishes offered to the ancestors during the prayer ceremony. It is mandatory to use a chicken as it represents wholeness. Apart from chicken, prawns, oyster, sea cucumber, abalone, nian gou are some of the popular dishes as they signify laughter, good news, happiness, raising oneself higher in each coming year and guaranteed abundance respectively.
“The rest is mentioned above (fish and sea moss). It is hard to dictate the origin for this tradition since it is practised by all.
“As the saying goes, you are what you eat, hence, the more dishes with auspicious connotation and gold consumed, the more prosperous the year will be for you,” explains Chef Heng.
According to him, some foods are a no-no for Chinese New Year.
“It depends on individual believes but some examples would be crab because it sounds like a sigh, squid as it carries the meaning of retrenchment and porridge as it is portrayed as food for the poor back in the olden days and one is not supposed to start the year on a ‘poor’ note,” he adds.
While the reunion dinner implies a great beginning, the meal on Chap Goh Mei (last day of CNY) suggests a pleasant ending, he explains.
Chef Heng strongly believes that good food plays a vital role in our culture; regardless of circumstances, a good meal is mandatory.