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In Singapore, Chinese New Year is a multicultural feast

NEW YORK — For about two decades, Ms Shila Das has brought her chicken curry and nasi biryani to her best friend, Ms Wendy Chua, for their Chinese New Year celebrations together in their native Singapore. They start the day with those dishes, then have hot pot.

In Singapore, Chinese New Year is a multicultural feast

A close-up of Mr Christopher Tan’s modern take on nian gao, a traditional Chinese sticky rice cake, in Singapore on Jan 16, 2022. The ethnic diversity of the island nation shines through food during the two-week Chinese New Year festivities.

NEW YORK — For about two decades, Ms Shila Das has brought her chicken curry and nasi biryani to her best friend, Ms Wendy Chua, for their Chinese New Year celebrations together in their native Singapore. They start the day with those dishes, then have hot pot.

The women, both 51, began spending the holiday together as teenagers, watching lion dance troupes perform in the wide atrium of MsChua’s grandfather’s house. Nearly three decades ago, the ethnically Chinese Chua family tasked Ms Das, who is Indian and Vietnamese, with presiding over its household’s New Year lo hei ceremony, a Singaporean tradition centred on yu sheng, one of the country’s most popular New Year dishes.

Ms Das led the family in tossing the ingredients, flinging raw fish, crackers, slivered carrots and pickled ginger into the air while shouting auspicious phrases in Chinese. (Lo hei means “tossing up good fortune” in Cantonese.)

“Just imagine. In this Chinese house, there’s this Indian girl that stands on the stool and leads the lo hei every year,” Ms Das said.

Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb 1 this year, is celebrated in Singapore primarily by members of the Chinese diaspora, who make up three-quarters of the population. They include those who are Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew from southeastern China; Hainanese from the island province of Hainan; Hakka, a migrant group spread out all over China; and Peranakan, who have been in the region for over 400 years and also have mixed Malay and European ancestry.

Each ethnic group has its own set of traditions, but years of living among one another, and among other peoples like Malays and Indians, have created the island’s colorful and distinctive culinary fabric.

Because Singapore is a port city where people from different cultures have mingled and shared food for centuries, sharing a multicultural holiday meal “comes as naturally as breathing,” said Mr Christopher Tan, 49, a food writer who wrote a cookbook about traditional Southeast Asian pastries.

For the holiday, he makes nian gao, a sticky rice cake that is a Chinese symbol of prosperity.

Desserts for the holiday used to be mostly made out of rice grown in the region. But British settlements and eventual colonisation brought wheat flour and butter to Singapore, which are now also commonly used.

When chef Shermay Lee visits her nonagenarian aunt during the festivities, she is greeted by a platter of warm homemade pastries: Elongated fine cookies, sweet pineapple tarts and paper-thin biscuits rolled into delicate cigars.

Those family recipes were passed down from Ms Lee’s grandmother, Chua Jim Neo, a prominent Peranakan food personality and the mother of Lee Kuan Yew, a founding father and the first prime minister of Singapore.

Ms Lee said her grandmother also used to serve Chinese New Year dinner on festive red and gold lacquered porcelain, with forks and knives instead of chopsticks — a typical Peranakan table setting. “It’s part of Singapore’s colonial history,” said Ms Lee, who rewrote and updated her grandmother’s cookbooks.

The 15-day feast that Ms Sharon Wee, a Peranakan cookbook author based in New York City, grew up eating took weeks of preparation. In advance of Chinese New Year’s Eve, she’d watch her mother season bright yellow noodles with sambal belacan, a pungent hot sauce, and a curry blended from spices that she dried and bloomed, then took to an Indian miller for grinding.

Because her parents cooked many New Year dishes that included pork, they also bought beef rendang for their Muslim halal-abiding friends.

For many Singaporeans today, cooking for two weeks straight is just too much work. It is increasingly common for modern families to congregate at a hotel restaurant for a single feast or to whip up simplified versions of traditionally elaborate dishes.

“I think it’s easier to cook vegetables over the Chinese New Year period,” said Mr Darren Ho, 32, a chef and belly dance instructor in Singapore. While meat is a popular choice for the holiday, Mr Ho’s go-to meal is chap chye, a festive braised cabbage dish flavored with pungent soybean paste.

“Sometimes we get a little bit lazy, and this is the easiest quick fix,” he said.

Ms Chua, who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Ms Das, who resides in Seattle, will be meeting their friends in Singapore again this year to celebrate.

“Our food is Chinese, Malay, Peranakan, Indian, Indonesian and Filipino,” Ms Das said. “We are an extended family.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Chinese New Year food heritage culture

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