An estimated 500,000 tourists set foot in the Thean Hou Temple each year. On Chinese New Year, locals make their way up for their yea...
A guide to some of the dishes and treats unique to the major Chinese dialect groups in Malaysia: Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Foochow, Teochew and Hainanese.
Dishes symbolising luck, fortune, health, longevity and happiness take centre stage during Chinese New Year. Find out which foods are unique to a particular dialect group that reflect the beliefs and origins of their ancestors.
Cantonese: Steamed whole fish
The Chinese character for fish is homonymous to “surplus” (余, yu), which indicates that a family has a surplus of wealth and food at the end of the year. As such, steamed whole fish is significant during Chinese New Year, regardless of dialect group.
What makes the Cantonese cooking style distinctive is its simplicity that’s heavily reliant on the chef's skill. “The depth of the slits you make on the fish will determine whether it is over- or undercooked,” says Chef Justin Ho of Noble Mansion, a restaurant specialising in Cantonese cuisine in Seksyen 13, Petaling Jaya. “The steaming time must correlate with the size and especially the thickness of the fish so that the resulting flesh is tender, silky and moist.”
Freshness is prized, so where possible, the Cantonese, who originally live by the seaside, use live fish that is freshly caught from the ocean. Minimal seasoning is used – the fish is served in a bath of specially mixed light soy sauce to allow the natural sweetness of the fish to come through.
Since the quality of the food is expected to speak for itself, the presentation of the dish is rarely showy, but the dish is sometimes served with other condiments to depict the significance of its meaning. At Noble Mansion, the fish is topped with abalone or bao yu. The words bao and yu translate to “assurance” and “surplus” respectively, signifying a promising start to the new year.
Where to try it: Noble Mansion, Plaza 33, 1 Jalan Kemajuan, Seksyen 13, 46200 Petaling Jaya (03 7932 3288). Open daily, 11am-3pm & 6pm-11pm.
Hakka: Abacus beads
Hakka cuisine is known for its rusticity and simplicity. This may have something to do with the nomadic nature of the Hakkas. Originally denizens from China’s fertile Yellow River region, they held lavish feasts during the eve of Chinese New Year, and typically enjoyed steamboat and dumplings.
When some of these Hakkas moved to the mountainous regions of the South, they lost access to the same ingredients they had back at the Yellow River. Hence, during festive seasons, these Southern Hakkas improvised with more widely available ingredients in their farms, such as yam, tapioca and sweet potatoes, to make into food offerings.
Of these, one of the most famous dishes is of course little abacus beads, or suen poon chi, which signifies 年年有得算 (“every year there is surplus”). Formed from a base of tapioca and yam, the dough is cut into abacus-bead shapes. When cooked, these little balls of dough are soft on the outside and chewy on the inside; think of it as the Hakka answer to the Italian gnocchi.
After the food offering ceremony to the ancestors is done, the Hakkas would stir fry the beads with minced meat, mushrooms, black fungus and various other vegetables. The intention is not just to create a tasty dish out of a humble base ingredient; by cooking, the step distinguishes between the offerings to the ancestors and food for the living family.
Where to try it: Gerai Seong Kee, 35 Taman Selesa, Jalan Othman, 46000 Petaling Jaya (03 7781 0946). Open Tue-Sun, 12noon-8.30pm.
Hokkien: Ang koo kuih
Typically associated with the Hokkien-speaking communities in the coastal province of Fujian, ang koo kuih, which means red tortoise cake, is shaped like the shell of a tortoise. The animal is symbolic of longevity, a highly coveted quality by traditional Chinese, which is why you’ll find it in Chinese temples.
Though commercially available at markets, bakeries and traditional kuih specialists such as Nyonya Colors, ang koo kuih is traditionally reserved for ancestral worship during special festivals, such as the Jade Emperor’s birthday on the eighth day of the Chinese New Year and a baby’s full moon celebration, an offering made by parents after their newborn child has passed a full month of age.
Sweet and sticky, the skin of the ang koo kuih is made of glutinous rice flour and sweet potatoes, and originally coloured red for luck (although colour variations, such as orange and green, have become common). The filling could be made from pre-cooked mung beans or ground peanuts. Once kneaded and filled, the kuih is shaped in a wooden mould, before it is placed on a piece of banana leaf and steamed.
Where to try it: Madam Yong Sweet Delights, Pasar Selera, Jalan Othman, 46000 Petaling Jaya. Open daily, 6am-1pm.
Foochow: Red wine noodles
For Foochows, one of the highlights of the first day of Chinese New Year is the chance to eat a bowl of red wine chicken noodles, a one-dish meal prepared by “pouring” a sweet-savoury soup over chicken pieces, ginger and mee suah, or silky wheat flour noodles.
Believed to be rich with iron, the dish was originally concocted as a confinement dish to fortify the health of women who have just given birth. Some families also eat it for birthdays since the long smooth thin strands of mee suah signify longevity. For Chinese New year, the noodles are served with hard-boiled eggs to wish for the diner’s wellbeing in the coming year.
Though normal rice wine can be used, the original recipe calls for a home-brewed rice wine made by fermenting a mixture of cooked glutinous rice and red rice bran. This lends a distinctive red colour to the dish. Mee suah can be obtained from most Chinese sundry shops and supermarkets, but for the most authentic versions, you’ll find them in Foochow strongholds such as Sitiawan and Sibu, where traditional noodle-makers hand-pull them in their backyards.
Where to try it: Taste Of Foochow, 14 Jalan Gajah, Pudu, 55100 Kuala Lumpur (03 9281 8788). Open Wed-Mon, 8am-3pm.
Teochew: Png kueh
In the legend of The Monkey King, there is an anecdote where the mythological figure gained immortality after eating the sacred peaches of the Jade Emperor’s garden. Thus, peaches are regarded as a symbol of longevity and commonly used as an offering in religious ceremonies.
Since the fruits are only in season once a year, the Teochews “improvise” by making dumplings shaped like peaches instead. Also known as poong tor (rice peaches), png kueh consists of a sticky skin made out of tapioca flour, enveloping a tasty savoury filling. Common variants in Malaysia are glutinous rice flavoured with mushrooms and shrimp, jicama or a sweetish peanut filling.
Png kueh is available in two colours: white and pink. The reason is not decorative – the pink ones are used as an offering to the gods who dwell in heaven, while the white ones are meant for the ancestors in the netherworld. Instead of making two types, some cooks may take shortcuts by dipping the chopstick into red food dye and imprinting a few red dots on the white ones.
Where to try it: 275 Kuala Kuang, 31200 Chemor, Perak (012 469 8421). Open daily, 9am-3pm.
Hainanese: Claypot lamb stew
Malaysian Hainanese cuisine can be traced back to the early 19th century, when immigrants from Hainan Island first landed on Malayan shores. By then, lucrative jobs in mining had been commandeered by earlier immigrants, so the Hainanese could only work as kitchen help in colonial households.
Turning the situation to their advantage, the Hainanese demonstrated their versatility by successfully marrying the tastes of their colonial employers with cooking styles and flavours of their native Hainan homes. The claypot lamb stew is a prime example of this fusion cooking style. On Hainan Island, goats were traditionally slaughtered during Chinese New Year and weddings and herbal mutton soup was a mainstay during festive occasions.
The original recipe is complex, calling for as many as twenty herbs, woodland delicacies such as dried wood ear fungus, and a variety of beancurd derivatives, to reduce the mutton’s gameyness and enrich the soup. There is another Malaysianised variant that uses lamb, has thicker gravy and is more stew-like in nature, and may incorporate root vegetables such as carrots and radishes.
Where to get it: Utara Coffee House, Armada Hotel, Lorong Utara C, Seksyen 52, 462000 Petaling Jaya (03 7954 6888). The claypot lamb stew will be served for a limited time during Chinese New Year.
By Alexandra Wong
Video by Teoh Eng Hooi
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