Yee sang, pineapple tarts, poon choy, nian gao and other Chinese New Year mainstays are familiar sights for those celebrating in Malaysia, Singapore, China and Taiwan. But if you’ve ever wondered how the rest of Asia celebrates Lunar New Year, here’s a peek at some of the foods and snacks celebrants eat during the festive period!
Tết—the Vietnamese Lunar New Year—won’t be Tết without the essential bánh chưng. The traditional rice cake is made from glutinous rice, stuffed with mung beans, pork and other ingredients. The neat square shape of the rice cake is done by wrapping it in lá dong leaves and leaving it to boil for hours. Once prepared, Vietnamese families place bánh chưng in family altars to honour ancestors and pray to them to support the family in the new year, as bánh chưng symbolises the earth and nature.
Tết is gà luộc
Another essential dish served during Tết is gà luộc, a whole chicken boiled to a pale yellow hue. Before the family tucks in to the bird at the dining table, it has to be placed on the altar first to pay homage to ancestors. After prayers, the boiled chicken is cut into smaller parts and served with xôi gấc (red sticky rice with pork), thinly-sliced lime leaves, salt and pepper sauce, and some sliced chilli.
It’s not all savoury flavours during Tết; there’s sweetness too! This element of the Vietnamese Lunar Year is represented with mứt tết: an assortment of candied fruits, vegetables and nuts, along with roasted seeds and candies. Colours such as red, gold and white are auspicious shades, so the platter of mứt tết is always bright (the better to usher in only the good things in life!). Think the golden hues of sweet pineapple, kumquat, mango, orange rind and coconut; ginger and lotus root boiled in sticky sugary syrup; crunchy melon seeds dyed red; caramel-glazed peanuts; and tamarind-flavored candies.
Make a beeline for the Quảng Bá Flower Market in Hanoi’s Tây Hồ district to take in the beautiful colours of peach blossoms, marumi kumquat and ochna integerrima—the flowers of Tết. Symbolising love, wealth and happiness, getting these pots of blooms are must-haves for Vietnamese households during Tết.
During Imlek (what locals call Lunar New Year), ikan bandeng (milkfish) reigns over the festival; the Chinese word for ‘fish’ sounds like the word for ‘surplus’, so eating fish (especially if it’s whole) is a good omen of financial surplus and good luck. Plus points if the ikan bandeng you buy is jumbo-sized for even more luck!
The humble mie goreng is brought to the fore during Imlek as a symbol of longevity, happiness and all things good. Eating the long noodles is said to bring in good luck for a long life, as well as oodles of prosperity for a good year ahead—so go ahead and have as much of the noodles as you can! Fun fact: Mie goreng is also a must-have at other big celebrations in the country.
Adding more colour to Imlek is kue mangkok. The steamed cupcake comes in shades of pink, from delicate rose to deep magenta, and its place in Imlek is one symbolising peace and ever-blooming fortune all year. Odd numbers are also favoured when serving kue mangkok; it isn’t served in even amounts during Imlek. You’ll also see the more familiar nian gao (known as kue keranjang) served with kue mangkok.
Soak in the festive vibes of Imlek with a visit to Pasar Semawis in Semarang. Besides the usual street food ranging from Chinese cuisine to Indonesian food, the night market in Central Java will host plenty of music and cultural performances, perfect for Imlek.
South Koreans celebrate Seollal, the Korean New Year with as much gusto as the rest! The three-day holiday is filled with Seollal dishes such as tteokguk, a traditional Korean broth dish with thinly sliced rice cakes eaten for the New Year. Tteokguk is made with simmered beef, chicken or pork in ganjang-seasoned stock, and topped off with julienned egg yolks and whites, marinated meat, gim (seaweed) and spring onions. Tradition states that eating tteokguk gives the diner a year’s good luck as well as another year to their age!
A type of buchimgae (Korean pancake), jeon is made of seasoned whole, sliced or minced fish, meat or vegetables coated with wheat flour and egg wash before being deep-fried. Usually served as a banchan (side dish), it’s eaten by ripping apart with chopsticks, believed to make it taste more delicious. No knives needed here! Fun fact: jeon is called jeonya when eaten in Korean royal court cuisine.
While celebrating Seollal, Koreans drink cold sujeonggwa for dessert. The traditional Korean cinnamon punch is a dark reddish brown, thanks to the brewing and boiling process with cinnamon, ginger, honey and dried persimmons. Drinking the naturally sweet sujeonggwa is believed to aid digestion, a helpful thing after big dinners! Different variants of the punch abound, with some using pears, pumpkin and schisandra.
Where to celebrate
Eager for hands-on activities to join during Seollal? Spend a few fun hours at the National Folk Museum of Korea located in Gyeongbokgung Palace, where you get to try your hand at traditional games like paengichigi (top spinning), yut nori (a board game where you throw sticks) and more.