Which dish is traditionally eaten on the first day of Lunar New Year? Easy: Chinese pudding. Or is it dumplings? Er, pot-stickers? Kumquats?

Our team had three people of Chinese descent. None of us thought there was any specific dish that was a must-serve for New Year lunch or dinner. The consensus answer, we decided, might be goh, the Chinese puddings and cakes popular during the season.

Chinese New Year pudding is a traditional dish for Chinese people on the first day of Lunar New Year – or is it? Photo: Shutterstock

There’s loh bok goh: the tasty savoury radish cakes, often pan-fried, are so good they are enjoyed year-round at dim sum. Another variety is nin goh, made with glutinous rice flour and cane or rock sugar, sometimes with coconut milk added. They are less popular because they’re quite sweet and chewy, but the name phonetically sounds like a wish for “prosperity the whole year”.

You also have puddings with water chestnut, taro, and dates; recently, I’ve seen not-so-traditional cakes made with red beans and coconut milk in a yin-yang design.

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Ultimately, it’s the name that makes it auspicious, because goh sounds the same as the Cantonese word for “up” – as in, the direction your money, career, stock portfolio and other material gains will go during the year.

Anyway, our collective quiz minds resolved that this would be our reply.

“Wrong!” said the quizmaster. “The correct answer is dumplings.”

Immediately, I howled my protest. I don’t know of any of my friends or my parents, grandparents or other sage elderly family member who command that dumplings must be part of our festive menu.

According to Google, Chinese people traditionally eat dumplings on the first day of Lunar New Year. Photo: Wikipedia

But apparently, this is what Google’s results say, so we lose our point for this question. I’m particularly miffed because this point could have been the difference between a podium finish and mid-table obscurity. It also peeves me because it feels like I was “white-splained” my own cultural customs.

This is the hazard of relying only on the internet for knowledge. Since that evening I’ve dug into the tradition. It’s true that dumplings are regularly consumed on the first day of Lunar New Year, but mostly in China’s northern regions. In the colder climate, buns and dumplings are a far more common staple than rice and steamed foods.

Northerners consider the jiaozi, or pot-sticker, a fortuitous symbol because the shape resembles a gold ingot. The more you eat, the better a year you might have.

Kumquats are an auspicious fruit because they are golden and their name sounds like a combination of the Cantonese words for lucky and gold. Photo: Shutterstock
There are other foods that could qualify as must-eat items on the first day of the New Year. Whole fish and chicken are always auspicious. So are tong yuen, sweet dessert soup balls, and spring rolls, apparently. Kumquats are lucky for their golden colour, as well as their name sounding like a combination of the Cantonese words for gold and lucky.

Are any of them mandatory foods, though? I would not say so.

Frankly, some traditions barely even register for Hongkongers. I never heard of the lo hei tradition of tossing noodles in the air to let “money” fall where it may until Malaysians and Singaporeans told me it is a Chinese thing.

As a kid, I used to indulge mightily in those gold coin chocolates, which naturally are lucky charms too. Now that’s something I would like to eat on the first day, the second, third and fourth.


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