CNY food: Symbolism and origins

Preserved fruits

Food plays a major role during Chinese New Year, and most of them, especially snacks, became staples because they symbolise something in their own unique way.

Bringing good luck for the coming year

Malaysia has a long-standing tradition with food. Nevermind the culture and beliefs, there will always be those certain few snacks served on the coffee table of each open house.

Traditional butter cookies, ‘kuih sepit’ (love letter rolls), and Kek Lapis Sarawak (layer cakes) will never be far during festive seasons. Apart from these classic delicacies, the Chinese community would often serve snacks that carry their own meaning every Chinese New Year (CNY).

From preserved fruits to grilled meat jerky — each item represents a symbol and is a must-have during open houses. That being said, have you ever wondered about the history of these festive treats and why they are served during the festive seasons?

Nyonya cookies

It is important to note that certain delicacies in our country derived from cultural influences from the colonial era, with local fusions to suit local taste buds. Some popular festive cookies which originated from the Baba Nyonya culture have been turned into a norm that even Sarawakians have it.

From pineapple tarts to ‘kuih bangkit’ (tapioca cookies) and kuih sepit, these three are among the many Nyonya cookies that you can find during most open houses. Combining traditional Dutch delicacies and those of the locals in Malacca and Penang, the history for these pastries can be traced back to ancient times in Europe.

For example, kuih sepit were derived from the Dutch’s egg roll wafer and was introduced during the colonial era in Malacca. Meanwhile, pineapple tarts was birthed from the combination of the Dutch’s love for tarts and pies, and the vast pineapple supply in the region at the time.

The Hokkiens consider pineapples auspicious, and they are particularly fond of it, as they called it ‘ong lai’ in their dialect, which literally means “fortune come”. Therefore, they see pineapple tart as one of the must-haves for CNY. Both pineapple tart and kuih sepit are also served in other local festivities such as Hari Raya, Gawai Dayak and even Deepavali.

Kuih bangkit is also a regular during festive seasons. The tapioca cookies made of sago starch is very much loved for its melt-in-your-mouth texture, and the origins can be traced back to the Baba Nyonya era. In a country blessed with different races and religions, the kuih bangkit easily made its way to Malaysian households.

Kek Lapis Sarawak

Kek Lapis Sarawak. Photo credit: Elaine’s homemade bakes.

Another popular treat during open houses is the Sarawak layer cake, better known as Kek Lapis Sarawak. The origins can be traced back to ‘Kek lapis Betawi’, a spice-flavoured layer cake from Jakarta, Indonesia. It was said that during the Dutch administration in Batavia (old name of Jakarta), the Betawi cakes was thought to be inspired by the European Spit Cake, made by the wives of the Dutch administrators in Batavia during the period.

Later on, it was introduced in Sarawak during the 1970s and 1980s. The locals innovatively created a whole new assortment, incorporating different flavours, thus creating a whole new variant of layer cakes which are now known as Kek Lapis Sarawak. With unique flavours and colourful geometrical shapes, the Kek Lapis Sarawak is a staple for every household in any festivities celebrated in the state.

Bakkwa — Grilled meat jerky

Bakkwa is thought to symbolise prosperity due to its reddish nature.

Known as bakkwa within the community, the grilled meat jerky is pricey, hence many Chinese households chose to omit it. However, some Chinese believe that the colour red from the meat symbolises prosperity to come during festive season. Known for its sweet and savoury taste, it is often what meat lovers look forward to during festivities.

Bakkwa originated from the Fujian province, and was brought over by the Hokkiens during migration. Back then, meat was considered a luxury, hence bakkwa was usually reserved for CNY. For its costly price, even in Sarawak, bakkwa shops, while staying open the whole year round, would only be flooded with customers during the auspicious season.

Preserved fruits and nuts

Preserved fruits while simple, holds great meaning in their names.

It is said that preserved fruits and nuts during CNY hold important meanings. At many Chinese households, the CNY Candy Box, also known as the Tray of Togetherness, will be served in either a six- or eight-compartment tray as they consider the number six to symbolise luck and eight to symbolise wealth.
Each compartment is filled with melon seeds, dried or preserved fruits, and nuts which carries certain symbols, signifying a good wish for the New Year. In short, it is a box of blessings for an abundant life in the coming year.
Some of the typical preserved fruits are the dried apricot (meaning xìngfu/wealth), peach (táo/prosperity), cashew nuts (yaoguo/wealth), peanuts (huasheng/prosperity) and melon seeds (zi/abundance generation).

Acar and keropok

A Sarawakian thing — the heavenly combination of acar and keropok.

The combination of acar and keropok is what makes the festive season extra special. Acar is a type of vegetable pickle, known as an appetiser, with its blend of sweet, spicy, and sour flavours. Incredibly, it goes so well with keropok (fish/prawn crackers). It is interesting to note that Sarawak acar is different from the ones in Malaya. The acar here comprise of carrot, cucumber, cabbage and chillies.

In Sarawak, serving acar with keropok to guests is normal, but the practice is often unheard of in other Malaysian states. Although you can practically have them at any time of the year, for Sarawakian Chinese families, acar and keropok are the must haves during CNY.