The Lunar New Year is a time of celebration, a joyous period for people to come together to celebrate old traditions and look forward to the future. And what is a celebration without food?
During Chinese New Year, a visit to a friend or relative’s house will usually include endless snacking. This year, we decided to take a look at the history behind these familiar Malaysian snacks that many of us remember from our childhood. You’ll never look at a love letter the same way…
These milky sweets with edible wrappers may be the top-selling sweets in China today, but you might be surprised to know they have a somewhat Western origin.
In 1943, a merchant from the ABC Candy Factory in Shanghai tried a milk candy from England, and was delighted at their taste. Soon, his factory started manufacturing their own version of the candy. It was a Mickey Mouse operation, quite literally: the original candies featured the popular Disney character. In the 1950s, however, foreign symbols fell into distaste with the Chinese government, and the candies were changed to feature a white bunny.
Now this is a tea with a history! This beverage, made from mint, honeysuckle and other herbs, dates back nearly 200 years to the Qing Dynasty in the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. It is thought to have been invented by a doctor, Wong Chat Bong. However, a Hong Kong company licensed the drink in 1995 and started selling it in the iconic red cans. From 2005, the drink became hugely popular – and now, there is a trademark dispute over the name in mainland China.
These thin, Frisbee-like candies are made from the haw, or the fruit of the Chinese hawthorn tree. The haw is a pretty versatile fruit, which can be eaten fresh, used in soups or sweet dishes, or even as a medicinal ingredient. However, they are best known for the candied version – a staple snack of many Malaysian childhoods.
In some parts of America, haw flakes have taken on a new use: conmen have discovered they are exactly the right shape and thickness to fool parking meters! Haw flakes were also traditionally given to children for the de-worming of parasites from the digestive tract. Best not to dwell on that next time you eat a haw flake.
These festive cookies are a mainstay of Malaysian celebrations, eaten during Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Deepavali alike. Pineapples have often been considered auspicious in Chinese culture: in Hokkien, they are called ‘ong lai’, which also sounds like the word for ‘auspicious’, and their golden hue has often been associated with money.
This delicious glutinous rice cake is a popular Chinese New Year dessert. Eating them is considered auspicious, as the name ‘nian gao’ sounds a lot like the Chinese for ‘higher year’, implying that eating them will elevate your status this year.
These cakes are also offered to the Kitchen God, who legend has it, returns to Heaven before every Chinese New Year to report to the Jade Emperor on every household’s activities. These cakes will stick his mouth shut, therefore making any badmouthing impossible!
These chalky cookies are made of tapioca flour and coconut milk, and are a delicious Nyonya delight. Their name (‘bangkit’ meaning ‘rise’) comes from the fact that these cookies rise during their baking.
These treats were originally used as altar offering during ancestor worship, before being made into the shape of currency, and then into the animal shapes we all love. Sesame seeds are often sprinkled on them to represent fertility. These days, they are a common sight at Chinese New Year markets.
Love Letters (Kuih Kapit)
These sweet snacks are believed to have originated from the Dutch or Portuguese, who assimilated their cake baking techniques into various Southeast Asian countries through conquests and travels since the 14th century. That’s why these snacks are sometimes called ‘Kuih Belanda.‘
Popular lore has it these biscuits were used to as a method for thwarted lovers to pass romantic messages to each other, hence the name. Their edible quality made it easy for any evidence of a tryst to be quickly destroyed, while consuming the cookies meant the message had been taken to heart. Dang, these ancient lovers really had game!
In Chinese culture, the peanut is supposed to represent longevity. Additionally, sheng, the second word in their name (huasheng), means to give birth, thus symbolizing the wish for many children. Any married woman who’s attended a Chinese New Year gathering with chatty aunties will certainly testify to how popular this wish is among relatives.
According to history, the name of this fluffy cake derives from the phrase ‘buah tangan daru hulu’ (small gifts from the headwaters’). This was because they were often presented by Malay travellers, who often travelled by water, as gifts to their guests.
This delicious Malay snack has often been called a local equivalent of the French madeleine pastries. They are believed to have first been brought into Malaya by the Javanese people from Bangkahulu, Indonesia. Chinese New Year versions of the cake are often shaped into fish, because the Chinese word for fish sounds like the word for abundance.
These dried meat strips are considered to be a Hokkien delicacy, and are believed to have originated from the Fujian province of China. Due to high levels of poverty, meat was considered to be a luxury, only eaten during Chinese New Year. Any meat leftover from these meals would be preserved by slicing them into thin sheets and marinating them with sugar and spices, before air-drying the slices and cooking them over a hot plate.
When this delicacy was brought to Singapore and Malaysia by immigrants, it adapted to local tastes. Instead of air-drying the meat, it would instead be grilled over charcoal, creating a smokier flavour. That’s how the bak kwa we love and know was born.
These twisted treats go by many names, and are popularly called matt fung dao in Cantonese. In Malay, they are known as kuih ros (due to their rose shape) or kuih goyang (‘shake’) due to the practice of shaking them off their moulds after dipping them into hot oil. They are believed to have been adapted from an Indian kuih called achappam. In Chinese lore, they are said to represent family togetherness.
Another staple of Malaysian childhoods, this soya bean drink actually originates from Hong Kong. The company was founded in 1940 by a Dr Kwee Seong Lo, who developed the drink as a milk alternative. At that time, many citizens suffered from poverty and malnutrition, due to high prices of milk. Dr. Kwee wanted to save the people from a nasty death, and so developed soy milk after discovering many of them were lactose intolerant.
Dr Kwee would originally deliver his soya bean milk to people’s houses via bicycle, before eventually selling it in retail outlets. Today, Vitasoy products are sold in 40 markets around the world, and are also available in other flavours such as red bean, taro and chocolate.
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