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Originally published by Sarah Moran. Last updated by Beverly Ngai.
With Chinese New Year fast approaching, one thing that we can look forward to the most (other than getting red packets) is gathering with friends and family to feast on all sorts of festive food. While different families celebrate the holiday in different ways, almost every family will try to pile as much “lucky” food as they can onto their plates. From sticky desserts to traditional noodles, these popular dishes will help you feast your way to prosperity this Year of the Ox.
Colloquially known as gok3 zai2 (角仔), meaning “little horns,” these addictive golden morsels are a perennial favourite in Chinese New Year candy boxes. They are said to bring prosperity because shape and colour are evocative of yuánbǎo (元寶), a type of gold ingot used as currency in imperial China.
Unlike your usual steamed or pan-fried dumplings, sweet fried dumplings are deep-fried to crispy perfection and filled with a sweet, crumbly filling usually consisting of ground peanuts, coarse granulated sugar, toasted sesame seeds, and shredded coconut. Many local bakeries roll them out every year around Lunar New Year, but Kee Tsui Cake Shop in Mong Kok really hits the nail on its head when it comes to delivering the perfect crunchy, yet delicate texture and fragrant filling. A word of advice: Have a few napkins on hand when you’re munching on these sweet treats, as they can be a bit of a messy affair!
Let’s be honest, there’s never a wrong time to tuck into a slice of turnip cake (蘿蔔糕; lo4 baak6 gou1). While this steamed savoury cake is widely enjoyed in Cantonese restaurants and cha chaan tengs all year round—particularly on dim sum occasions—it is absolutely indispensable during Chinese New Year. It is considered a lucky dish as the word radish bears the same pronunciation as “good fortune” in Hokkein, a language native to southeastern China.
As the name gives away, turnip is a key ingredient in this cake, along with rice flour as the binding agent to create a tender yet still somewhat firm texture. The best part of a turnip cake though, as anyone who has had before will tell you, is the umami-rich accoutrements loaded inside, which commonly include Chinese sausages, mushrooms, and dried shrimp.
It is not uncommon to see families make their own turnip cakes for the new year. For shop-bought options, Superstar Group is a go-to spot for a traditional turnip cake, while vegetarians can head to Kee Wah Bakery for their meat-free variation made with Chinese yam and assorted mushrooms. To serve, cut the cake into rectangular slices, pan-fry until both sides are crispy (or slightly burnt for extra textural dimension), and have it with oyster sauce or hot sauce! You can also find turnip cakes at these restaurants and hotels across Hong Kong.
No Chinese New Year spread is complete without a whole steamed fish (蒸魚; zing1 jyu4) as the centrepiece. This dish has been given an auspicious meaning because the word “fish” (魚; jyu4) sounds like “surplus” (餘; jyu4) in Chinese; and eating fish is said to usher in such abundance of wealth and prosperity that you will have “surplus” to carry over to the year after—just as the Chinese blessing goes “年年有餘 (Nin4 Nin4 Jau5 Jyu4),” meaning “May you have a surplus every year.”
Carp and pomfret are popular choices for fish, both symbolising good luck by way of wordplay (in case you can’t already tell, the Chinese are quite fond of puns). Customarily, the fish is steamed with ginger, scallions, and cilantro, and topped with a drizzle of soy sauce right before serving. Make sure that the fish arrives at the table whole, with its head and tail fully intact to represent a good year from beginning to end.
Many Chinese banquet restaurants serve this dish, but if you don’t mind going a bit out of the way, Dragon Inn Seafood Restaurant in Tuen Mun whips up some of the best steamed fish in the city!
Glutinous rice balls (湯圓; tong1 jyun4), literally meaning “soup balls” in Cantonese, are traditionally filled with black sesame or peanut paste filling, with an accompanying sweet soup flavoured with ginger and rock sugar. Eating glutinous rice balls during Chinese New Year is said to bring your family closer together because “tong1 jyun4” sounds like the Chinese word for a reunion.
You can find these in the frozen section of most supermarkets, but they are also a staple on the menu of local dessert shops. If you’re craving good old traditional glutinous rice balls, then Fook Yuen Desserts in North Point is said to have some of the best in Hong Kong.
Made with water chestnut flour, chopped water chestnut, and sugar, the water chestnut cake (馬蹄糕; maa5 tai4 gou1) is another traditional steamed cake eaten during Chinese New Year. Many families prepare this cake for the holiday not only because “maa5 tai4” is the Chinese name for water chestnut, but because it can also mean a horse’s hooves—an animal which symbolises strength and power in Chinese culture. If you want to try this lucky cake, then Ho Kwong Desserts in North Point is known for selling freshwater chestnut cakes that are handmade every day!
Longevity noodles (長壽麵; coeng4 sau6 min6) are basically any type of noodles that don’t get cut or broken up. As you can guess, these noodles symbolise a long and healthy life for whoever eats them.
During Chinese New Year, many people make this dish using e-fu noodles (伊麵; ji1 min6), a type of Cantonese egg noodle which is made from wheat flour. However, any kind of noodles will do as long as they don’t break. Some people cook the noodles in plain soup, while others stir-fry them with eggs and barbecued pork—it’s entirely up to you. While restaurants in Hong Kong don’t typically serve this dish, you can buy a pack of traditional noodles from Wong Chi Kei and make them yourself.
A big bowl feast, which is commonly known as poon choi (盆菜; pun4 coi3), is a traditional Chinese dish that is popularly eaten in the former walled villages of the New Territories. It is a pot full of vegetables or sides and is made by layering different types of “lucky” food together before cooking it in one giant pot.
The main ingredients of this feast usually include abalone, pork, chicken, mushroom, broccoli, black moss, and more. If you’re looking for authentic poon choi, then Ping Shan Traditional Poon Choi in Yuen Long is your best bet, but you can also get a bowl from Tai Hing if you’re looking for an option in town.
One of the most common things people eat during Chinese New Year is a steamed rice cake (年糕; nin4 gou1). The word “nin4” means year, and while “gou1” means cake, its pronunciation sounds like the word “higher” and thus symbolises growth, prosperity, and going “higher” in every area of your life.
Chinese New Year cakes are made with glutinous rice flour, water, brown sugar, and have a moist and chewy texture. You can easily find them in supermarkets, local bakeries, and tea houses, as they are a popular gift to give when visiting someone’s home during the holiday. Most people like to dip their sliced Chinese New Year cake into battered eggs first before frying it in a shallow pan. Not only does this give your nin4 gou1 a ton of extra flavour, but it also stops the cake from sticking to the pan.
The pastry chain store Kee Wah Bakery, which has branches in many Hong Kong MTR stations and shopping malls, sells delicious Chinese New Year cakes that are chewy and only mildly sweet. You can also find Chinese New Year cakes at these restaurants and hotels across Hong Kong.