Symbolic food a key ingredient in lunar new year celebrations

January 30, 2019

By Vancouver Sun

Each piece of food has a metaphorical meaning of the positive attributes of health, wealth and happiness.

Inside New Town bakery, hungry diners order the pork buns and apple tarts the famed Vancouver Chinatown bakery is known for. But in late January, something else is flying off the shelves: glutinous rice cakes.

Made of three basic ingredients — brown sugar, water, rice flour — it is a humble, unassuming dessert, but a popular treat during lunar new year, which this year falls on Feb. 5, the first day of the Year of the Pig.

“It’s called nian gao,” said Robert Sung, a third-generation Chinese-Canadian who offers guided culinary tours in the historic neighbourhood.

“Nian” sounds like the Mandarin-language word for “year” and “gao” means both “cake” and “high.” Put together, the rice cake symbolizes advancement and growth, he explained. Some bakeries serve nian gao in the shape of a 3D fish — a double whammy of good fortune as the word for fish is a homonym for surplus.

The lunar new year, also called the spring festival, heralds the coming spring. For many Chinese people, the new year signifies a new beginning and a chance for a fresh start. To prepare, people clean the house, pay off debts, and gather with family and friends over a lavish meal with foods steeped with symbolism.

“Each piece of food has a metaphorical meaning of the positive attributes of health, wealth and happiness,” usually based on pronunciation and appearance, said Sung.

A roasted duck or a whole chicken, for example, symbolizes wholeness and prosperity. Dumplings are popular because their shape resembles ingots, while golden fried spring rolls look like gold bars. Noodles signify long life, so it’s important to slurp them unbroken.

On a recent tour around Chinatown, Sung takes a reporter to some of its longtime shops and eateries to showcase food and ingredients.

At the Guo Hua medicinal store on Main Street, Sung reached into a bin to get dried hair moss called fat choy, which sounds like “prosperity.” An iodine-rich algae, it has the texture of coarse hair when dry. But when soaked, it becomes soft and finer, and is usually eaten in soups or stews.

Later, Sung points to bags of bok choy, which is used as the “mane” in “lion’s head,” essentially a meatball-and-veggie dish, but with a more dramatic, auspicious name.

At Hung Win Seafood on Gore Street, the tanks will soon be full of live fish. Fish, which represent abundance and prosperity, are usually served whole at the end of the meal.

Traditionally, diners would feast on one side, then take the bone off to get to the meat on the other side. Flipping it over is a no-no, warned Sung. “Turning it upside down means you’re tossing your luck away.”

The tour around Chinatown reveals an evolving neighbourhood.

The stores, while lively and busy, are dwindling. A 2017 report by the Hua Foundation, a non-profit based in Chinatown, has found that the neighbourhood has lost half of its “culturally appropriate fresh food assets,” including produce stores and butcher shops, between 2009 and 2016.

There is a movement afoot to revitalize Chinese food businesses in Chinatown, such as a thriving CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program selling veggie boxes containing Chinese vegetables like pea tips and bok choy, and summer events and festivals that showcase traditional Chinese food with a modern twist.

Industrial and food designers Amanda Huynh and Mandy Chang launched Edible Projects in 2014, using it to elevate the familiar foods of their youth and introduce them to a new audience.

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