By Hanif R. Arrayyan, published in The Jakarta Globe, January 21, 2009.
Without having the food play a major role, welcoming the year of Ox will not be in complete. The dining occasion during the celebration offers a variety of Chinese dishes where fortune includes in the food and the ingredients that go in them, translating the menu with symbolic meanings of wealthy and healthy.
The foretelling indicating a sign of an increasing wealth and improving health in the upcoming year 2560 of Chinese calendar has turned anxiety to hope in the sense that fortune will outdo the current economic downturn. This perhaps, for many, is a myth. But the essence of superstition remains where a number of seasonal foods brought to the table have symbolic significances during the two-week Chinese New Year celebration, which also known as the spring festival.
Though it sounds superstitious, particularly in today’s technology era, the food’s appearance is what often associated with hopes in the festive celebration. Serving a whole chicken, for instance, symbolizes strong family ties. And whole fish is among the most popular dishes. Not only does it have the delight of the rich oriental ingredient flavors, but more interestingly, the name of the dish itself alludes to a big hope of prosperity.
The fish menu is often associated with the Chinese adage such as nian nian you yu in Mandarin or neen neen yau yu in Cantonese. The both phrases can be translated into various Chinese New Year greetings such as every year have fish and may you have abundance every year.
Customarily, every Chinese ethnic family likes to have at least one fish on the menu, though it is also common that diners leave a bit fish on their plate at the end of the meals to ensure having an excess of fortune in the coming year.
In the virtue of health, noodles serve as a symbol of longevity, believed by some that it is considered bad luck to cut this food. In some Chinese restaurants, it is accustomed to serving long noodles as a complimentary menu in order that patrons sitting on the table are blessed with a long life.
As a matter of fact, almost every dish on Chinese menu has symbolic meaning for fortune, happiness, longevity and prosperity. Hoe see fat choy, hair seaweed (fat choy) with dried oysters (hoe see) can be translated as “wealth and good venture.” While pig’s tongue forecasts profit, lettuce means “growing wealth.”
Spring rolls have become the icon of wealth owing to their shape that is resemblance to gold bars. Furthermore, it is customary during the days of celebrating Chinese New Years to take gifts of tangerines and oranges as their Chinese names have an alluding meaning of gold and wealth.
Nian Gao, a sticky rice pudding cake has long been the popular dessert during the Chinese New Year season. Its popularity stenches back to the belief that eating Nian Gao at midnight can accelerate one’s career journey in a faster pace. This sticky rice cake indeed has three symbolic significances. While the cake’s sweetness is a symbol of being happily rich, the cake’s layer represents an increase in wealth for the coming year. In addition, the cake’s round shape signifies family reunion.
Dumpling, Northern China’s New Year’s eve traditional food, has left an interesting history. Resembling the golden ingots used as a medium of exchange during the Ming Dynasty, dumplings have the delight of bringing wealth and prosperity.
Some dishes may be eaten simply because of their names. The famous Peking duck symbolizes fidelity and eggs for fertility. Black moss (a hair-like algae), widely consumed in Hong Kong, is often called fa cai owing to the food’s coincidental phrase in the acclaimed Chinese New Year greeting Gong Xi Fa Cai. While fa cai itself literally means to be rich, the combined wording of Gong Xi Fa Cai is a well-known interpretation of “wishing a abundant wealth and better health in the coming year.”
Ivan Setiawan, an Indonesian Chinese ethnic, said that Chinese New Year means a traditional feast with family and friends that has thousands years of historical and cultural legacy. Even though he himself is not really into the superstitious belief that lies on many eastern cultures, Ivan cited the importance of preserving a culture. “I feel more like Indonesian rather than a Chinese in person. Celebrating Chinese New Year, to me, is a means of preserving my ancestor’s heritage. This, of course, includes those finesse Chinese dishes.”
He remarked that there are a myriad of cultural heritages in Indonesia such as those of Javanese, Sudanese, Balinese and Sumatran as well as ethnics like Arabian, Indian and Chinese; all of which have become part of the history making of diverse communities across the archipelago. “It is important therefore for Indonesians, regardless of where they originated, to preserve their culture brought from their ancestors, respectively,” Ivan advised.
As the popularity of Chinese New Year celebration is increasing, a quite surprise number of non-Indonesian Chinese ethnics are seen enjoying the merrymaking. Tahir Abdullah, a senior manager of a multinational company, has been among those taking the joy of the festivity. Into Chinese cuisine, Tahir said he and his family since 2000 regularly spent a jovial moment on every Chinese New Year’s eve dining at a fine restaurant.
“Being a product of thousands years of civilization, the widespread Chinese communities worldwide have given another look of globalization. And off course the delight of Chinese food that always entice my fastidious palate,” Tahir concluded.