CERTAIN foods and dishes are a must-have during the Chinese New Year season, ranging from the now ubiquitous yee sang, whole white steamed chicken or nian gau, to more dialect group-specific ones.
Nonetheless, some dishes are either falling out of favour or
evolving with the times.
As an example, yee sang, which was previously eaten on the sixth or seventh day of Chinese New Year, is now eaten at any point of the festive season or during reunion dinner.
Furthermore, in deference to changing market tastes, the fish component, which was previously grass carp, now consists of more exotic marine ingredients.
One reason, according to Armada Hotel Petaling Jaya’s executive chef Chew Teik Chye, is the change in tastes of the younger generation as well as the increasing availability of foreign ingredients.
“In the past, because it was difficult to get foreign foods, we used what we had, like grass carp. The fish is a traditional good luck symbol.”
“Now, I would think it’s also a generational thing and because of increasing availability, we get not only salmon, but other fish or seafood like octopus, tuna or even butterfish to experiment with,” said Chew.
Homophonic dishes, which sound similar to wishes for good fortune or luck, can also become rare, such as the the obviously auspicious fatt choy, which sounds like “grow prosperous”.
The blackish strands resemble hair when dry, and have a very fine vermicelli texture when soaked in gravy. But it is actually a cyanobacteria that grows in patches of inner Mongolia, Gansu and Ningxia and it stabilises the topsoil.
Its harvesting to feed the Chinese New Year demand has led to increasing desertification in those regions, with a concordant rise in sandstorms blowing into Beijing and northern China.
Since then, the Chinese government has worked to restrict the harvesting of fatt choy and banned its consumption on mainland China, leading to higher prices and in some cases, adulterated raw ingredients.
Some chefs, such as Chew, stretch out their supplies by limiting their usage in each dish because the fatt choy expands after being immersed in liquid.
Pomfret (especially the tow tai cheong variety), steamed and served simply with soy sauce, garlic oil and some coriander, spring onion and fried garlic, is also a Chinese New Year staple which is slowly disappearing.
The simple yet superb (if done right) dish, is pretty much a requisite for the festive season and weddings, although as trends change, diners prefer similar white-fleshed fish such as cod.
One reason for this is the pomfret’s price, which has pushed past RM100 for a one-kg fish due to factors such as overfishing, bad weather and increased demand. Some dialect dishes are also undergoing change, such as the iconic Hakka “abacus beads” dish (suan pan zi), so named for their resemblance to the abacus.
For some Hakkas, the decline in the appearance of suan pan zi, now seen mainly at specialist Hakka dining outlets, is due to the amount of labour needed to make it, especially in terms of mashing the diced yam into a paste and having to make the beads while hot. Instead, households now purchase ready-made suan pan zi from the market.
Although the ready-made variety, according to some purists, is less “authentic”, as a larger amount of flour is added, making the kneading and shaping process easier, the resulting beads are starchier in character.
On the other hand, the Cantonese dish pun choy, which was rarely eaten previously, is coming back in a huge way, with several Cantonese cuisine restaurants in the Klang Valley serving this communal dish.
“It is making a comeback, or getting more popular. In the past, it used to be difficult to find a place that sells pun choy, and people usually made it themselves,” Chew said.
Some wax products are also falling in popularity, and the chef has noted the fall in the number of hawkers retailing staples such as waxed liver sausages (yun cheong) and the conventional lap cheong.
“Previously, we made waxed meat products to preserve them over winter and eat them during New Year. One popular way to eat lap cheong, aside from lap mei fun, is to slice them, and eat them with sliced leeks doused in vinegar,” said Chew.
However, due to health concerns, fewer people are eating waxed products these days. Chew admitted that he was trying to cut down on his consumption of waxed products too.
Shark’s fin soup is another festive food which is declining in popularity given the outcry against shark finning. Some local restaurants and hotels have refrained from putting the item on their menus.
“I think we will still have shark’s fin for a while, especially as the older generations are still traditional and set in what they consider must-have festive cuisine.”