As any kid visiting relatives and friends during Chinese New Year will attest to, the next best thing after receiving the red packets is the variety of snacks that are offered. What lays under the lid of that Tray of Togetherness (攢盒) -- the round candy box – can make or break the visit!
Every traditional Chinese home will have a candy box sitting prominently on their coffee table or sideboard during entire 15-day Chinese New Year celebration. This candy box, also known as the “Tray of Togetherness” because it is always round in shape to signify unity and completeness, is filled with an assortment of bite-sized preserved candied fruits, sweetmeats and candy (obvious, isn’t it?) associated with auspicious symbolism: luck, prosperity, good health and fertility.
The box is traditionally made of red or black lacquer with characters and images representing good fortune or happiness on its lid and on the shallow porcelain trays within. The number of trays are usually six or eight as the number six represents luck and eight represents prosperity. However, the box in the photo below has seven compartments! Upon additional web surfing, I found the number of trays can range from five to nine! So … go figure.
It is also customary to place two tangerines with stems attached on top of the candy box because the word “tangerine” sounds like “gold” in Chinese and its color resemble gold. So, it pays to add a touch of “wealth” to the sweetness.for the coming year. The stems of the tangerines represent longevity.
Aside from the snacks, other auspicious foods families eat throughout the New Year are long noodles to signify longevity; fish because it sounds like “surplus/abundance” in Chinese and represents abundance in luck and wealth. One caveat on eating the fish – one never flips the fish over because in the old days, that can mean a fisherman’s boat turning over at sea!
Families also eat a vegetarian dish on New Year’s Day as a “cleansing” gesture. The dish is made with a kind of seaweed that resembles long hair (gross to look at and a taste for which this writer never acquired!) but because its name sounds like “get rich,” everyone makes it!
Of course, there are the “cakes.” The sweet version, niángo (年糕), is made of glutinous rice flour, almond extract and brown sugar, then and steamed. The slices are then dipped in egg batter and deep fried. The savoury version, law brag go (蘿蔔糕) is made with rice flour and grated daikon, with bits of Chinese bacon, mushrooms and spring onions. It also is sliced and pan-fried after being steamed. (This savoury version is readily available at dim sums.) The name of these “cakes” in Chinese is “go” and homophonic for ”high.” Therefore, eating them means kids will grow tall and adults will rise high in their jobs!
Happy Year of the Dog and happy eating for another year!