Chinese New Year in the Philippines is always one big event filled with so many rituals thanks to the approximately 1.5 million Chinese Filipinos in the Philippines who make up 1.6% of our country’s population. Our ancestors’ interaction with ethnic Chinese dates all the way back to the 9th century through trade in the islands. Through time and history, as many more Chinese migrated and settled here, local Filipinos learned to imbibe the Chinese culture, incorporating it into their own. This is nowhere more evident than in our cuisine, where pansit (noodles), lumpia (spring rolls), taho (a dessert made of soft tofu, sugar syrup and pearl sago), fried rice, misua (very thin wheat noodles), humba (braised pork belly), hototay (egg drop soup), among others, have found their way into our tables and into our hearts.
In celebrating our own traditional events, we adopted some of these Chinese customs and beliefs such as setting off fireworks and preparing certain types of food in the New Year. The Chinese are known to offer food as a prayer or wish addressed to departed ancestors and the Kitchen God. Although this practice is meant to serve as a bonding symbol to bring both worlds together, many of us have fused elements of this Chinese custom into our own rituals and traditions. Tikoy, a sticky rice cake that is not only considered good luck to eat but also signifies a family that sticks together, is what we know by far as the most popular food item in the Chinese New Year. But there is an endless list of edible symbols which many of us have learned to adapt into our own versions of New Year Celebrations, either cooked, eaten or simply as a decorative symbol of offering.
If in the West an apple a day keeps the doctor away, for the Chinese, apple symbolizes wisdom and peace. Banana represents brilliance at work or school. Chinese cabbage is equivalent to a hundred types of prosperity luck. Clams, scallops and oysters are meant to open new horizons and opportunities. Cashew nut represents gold, money and wealth because the nut’s shape symbolizes the gold bar of ancient times.
Duck is for fertility while garlic chives stand for long life. Coconut including the nut, juice or milk is meant to promote togetherness. Whole chicken is for joy, prosperity and togetherness of the family. And if the head, tail and feet are intact, this symbolizes completeness.
Lettuce and whole fish signify increased prosperity. Bean sprouts invite a positive start into the new year while fresh fruits symbolize life and new beginnings. Sugared fruits and sweets are supposed to sweeten one’s upcoming year, and when served on a round tray are considered very lucky. Dumplings, which resemble ingot (the ancient form of gold or silver) signify wealth and heavenly blessing.
Likewise, the shape and color of kumquat and mandarin orange symbolize gold, hence fortune and wealth. Lychee, meatball and melon mean close family ties, reunion or unity. Corn and melon are meant for growth and peanuts for health and general good fortune. Grapes, pomegranates and pomelo are symbols of wealth, abundance, fertility, many offsprings and family harmony. Prawn and shrimp bring happiness while pumpkin is all about prosperity, abundance, descendant’s luck, successful children and enchantment.
(For a complete list of food and their Chinese symbols, you may visit this link.)
To welcome the Year of the Snake, I am recreating an old childhood comfort food that I have not eaten since age six! It is a simple but flavorful pasta recipe that incorporates several lucky elements of the Chinese New Year: pork for strength, wealth and abundant blessing, carrots for luck, onion for cleverness, egg for fertility, pineapple for wealth and good fortune, and spaghetti, in place of noodles, to signify long life! In my case, this is a personal tribute to a long lost favorite that I am bringing back to life.