Man at His Best

Opinion: Lunar New Year snacking

Tan Huang Ming defends the Lunar New Year tradition of degustative debauchery

BY Tan Huang Ming | Feb 7, 2016 | Food & Drink

Image from Josiah Lau Photography / Flickr

The start of a new year is always filled with hope. The desire to wipe clean the effects of last year’s cumulative consumption of tasty edibles causes people to make all sorts of crazy declarations. I’m convinced that these vows are an exercise in futility. 

Welcome to the Lunar New Year. Beyond the Western world’s roast-beast tradition of Thanksgiving and Christmas comes a season so stuffed with snacks that even a selective, skilled glutton like me falters. Needless to say, the rest of you are doomed.

The festival itself is a celebration of family and the traditional start of the spring farming season. After perilous winter months, it’s easy to understand the emphasis on a successful harvest. During this season, our love affair with symbolism brings to bear the Asian twin totems of surplus and success. There’s no better way to demonstrate this hope than with food, and lots of it. 

You’ll need food that embodies prosperous imagery, resembles a lucky or desirable object, and has a fortuitous-sounding name. They’re everywhere, from restaurants to elaborately prepared home-cooked meals, but no setting expresses this association quite like a well-stocked larder of Lunar New Year goodies. 

The concept is simple: people go from house to house visiting friends and family to applaud their triumph over the harsh winter, as well as their avoidance of hungry winter beasts, real or mythical. Gifts of money are given to younger, unmarried visitors for luck. All guests are served liquid refreshments, and most crucially, trays laden with sweet and savoury items. It’s bad luck to refuse these offerings, and we must respect tradition, no? 

Truth be told, Lunar New Year gatherings can be a bit much. All these relatives, whom you barely see and can’t remember by name, ask why you aren’t attached or pregnant, or when your second child is on the way. A comfortable compromise is to greet the ones who matter, with stock phrases that you’ve memorised, before placing yourself within arm’s reach of the titbit table.

Think of it as a race: you secure first corner by snaring a red-topped jar. Push off with pineapple tarts and navigate your way through open-faced, tubular, buttery-but-crumbly or crisp and firm varieties. Balance is crucial, and when you tire of sweet fruit jam and rich pastry, hunt down prawn rolls and bak-kwa for a savoury, salty touch. After that, return to the sweets. Tease layers off thick slabs of kueh lapis, or dissolve cloudy, coconut-y puffs of kueh bangkit on the tip of your tongue. Round that off with seasoned nuts and pumpkin seeds, marvelling at the combination of rich and salty. Basically, you’re training your tongue to endure flavour fatigue.

Suddenly, a familiar voice calls out to you and an unmarked tin of love letters appears on the table, carried from some faraway place with great affection. A spoon is employed to jimmy the lid off, and you reach in and peel away layers of greaseproof paper for the softly rustling treats within…

First published in Esquire Singapore's February 2016 issue. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Esquire Singapore, Mongoose Publishing, its affiliates or its employees.