In Singapore, like across most of Asia and the world, the Lunar New Year or Chinese New Year is a really big deal.
And it is filled with so much symbolism that it's embarrassing to discuss our Easter Egg traditions. Why is it so loved? Announcing the year to come it is a tie when families travel back home to come together. In China, where families can be many hours apart and jobs leave little time for personal downtime, the Chinese New Year is that time of the year when everyone takes a holiday. And also, everyone cooks, and eats. A lot.
Traditionally, variety on the table is synonymous for bringing all the things you hope for in the new year, an abundance of wealth, health, good fortune.. you name it, they ask for it! Foods are chosen for their symbolic representation based on how they sound said aloud, their preparation method or simply for their aesthetics. The details vary depending on the regions - in Singapore we have our own twists and local preferences - but essentially, the intention of inviting good things into the lives of loved ones is the same.
However, many of the foods consumed during this period are meat-heavy and/or lavishly packaged (just like Easter Eggs and bite-sizes foil wrapped chocolates). Seafood consumption today is endangering our ocean's fragile ecosystems and could bring down the entire food chain. Meat products are under scrutiny for their carbon footprint, diseases caused from inhumane livestock management and intensive systems of husbandry. We've listed a few traditional Lunar New Year foods and dishes that are intrinsically vegan or vegetarian and provided an alternative for those that aren't. Promise, they can be just as meaningful and most importantly, taste just as good (if not better).
the Whole Fish
Super important and virtually unavoidable, particularly because it's the star of yu sheng or how we call it, lo hei. This is because "fish" ("yù") in Mandarin sounds like "leftover" and as such represents abundance of food or wealth, so much that you have enough to bring into the next year. Many bear the belief that it’s important to leave some fish behind for the next day to take the meaning literally, and the fish's importance is evident throughout the Chinese New Year sayings that revolve around it. Ok, so we won't lie to you here, it' not like we can make a fish without fish. Or... can we? The meaning is what matters, so you can still enjoy a fine fish visually that is 100% vegetarian such as this vegetarian whole fish or have some fun preparing vegan taiyaki (Japanese fish shaped waffles). Ready to use vegetarian alternatives can also be bought in the supermarket directly to replace fish strips in yu sheng.
Feeling creative? We found a koi fish dessert jelly for some extra prosperity. Pandan leaves, some water, plant-based gelatine and colouring... a fish mould and some pretty arty hands and you have yourself a beautiful koi pond on the table. Oh, and they have to be red and yellow if you are going to make them because...
Sold dried and ready to use in broths, throw these little ruby-like fruits anywhere you see fit! Red is the most important colour during celebrations because in the region it represents prosperity and happiness. The more red on the table the better.
NIAN GAO (Sweet glutinous rice cake)
A vegan favourite! Nothing to swap in this recipe, as the nian gao (literally "Year Cake in Mandarin) is made of glutinous rice flour and/or sweet glutinous rice flour, sugar and water! Naturally gluten-free too and simply mixed and steamed. Couldn't be simpler. Nian (year) is a homonym for "sticky" and Gao means "tall" or "high up" and together represent success in the upcoming year.
Braised Shiitake Mushrooms
Braised shiitake mushrooms with the omnipresent Chinese cabbage-like bok choy is most popular in Shanghai, traditionally prepared in oyster sauce. So it's simple, just replace the latter with a vegetarian oyster sauce and voilà.
Chang Shou Mian (Longevity Noodles)
Long life noodles are a traditional Chinese noodle dish made with yi mian (伊面), known as e-fu noodles, a type of egg noodle that originates from Guangdong Province. Flat-like, it is first cooked in boiling water and deep fried twice so you do have to look out for vegan alternatives if you don't do egg! These were once one long strand to symbolise long life - though today they're just the more practical long noodles in a simple gravy-type broth. Their distinct rich yellow colour is also appreciated during celebrations representing gold and as such bringing wealth into the new year.
Tang yuan (Sweet Rice Balls)
Tang yuan (汤圆) are most commonly served on the final day of the Chinese New Year (which is also the Lantern Festival, Yuan Xiao Jie 元宵节), are also made from glutinous rice and filled with red bean, sesame, peanut or taro. Today though, anything goes in terms of creative filling ideas, and they are either deep fried or served in a warm and slightly sweet soup which makes for an interesting combination of chewy, sweet, wet... it's hard to explain, but it's so worth a try! Lard is widely used in Chinese desserts and pastries to provide a stronger flavour and fluidity to the fillings, but you can substitute it for butter (vegetarian friends) or coconut oil (100% vegan-friendly) and achieve the same texture. This recipe uses beetroot juice to add red into the dish for yet more of the lucky colour.
In general, the New Lunar Year celebrations invites anything sweet to the table, such as fresh fruits, dry fruits, candy and desserts because it symbolises a sweet life. Well, who are we to say the contrary?
Maybe not so special you think, but they are a favourite because their crispy envelopes resemble gold bars, which is how they get their lucky saying 黄金万两 (hwung jin wan lyang), meaning "a ton of gold". Versatile, you can technically use almost anything in a spring roll, so go wild with your favourite vegetables and pair them with one of these vegan spring roll dipping sauces. Eat the whole roll from one end to another to wish that everything will begin and end well in the Year of the Ox.
Tangerines and Oranges
While in general fruit is appreciated, nothing compares to the success of tangerines, whose traditional exchanging of started in the province of Canton. In Cantonese, the word for tangerine, chéng (橙), sounds the same as the word for good fortune so it was a meaningful gift to grace any table you were invited to, to friends and relatives. Now you know why they are all over the city - but we're better off eating the fruits than leaving them to rot on the trees outside in this humid weather.
What are your plant-based recipes to celebrate the coming into the Year of the Ox? We would love to hear!