Chinese New Year is upon us. And whenever this auspicious celebration comes around, red lanterns, firecrackers, and ang pows (red packets filled with money) come to mind. And then of course, there is the food. Glorious Chinese dishes that are served during family reunion dinners, during which family members near and far would come together to enjoy a celebratory feast on the eve of Chinese New Year.
Malaysian Chinese, including those in Sarawak, are known for keeping to tradition when it comes to celebrating Chinese New Year. One of those traditions is a family reunion dinner on the evening prior to Chinese New Year itself. The once-a-year celebratory family feast will see families dining out in restaurants, while some choose to prepare their own reunion dinner at home. As is tradition, must-have Chinese New Year dishes, each with their specific meaning and symbolism deeply rooted in Chinese culture include dumplings for wealth, fish for surplus and prosperity, noodles for longevity, glutinous rice balls for family reunion, glutinous rice cake for career and salary, spring rolls for wealth and a fresh start, and wontons for wealth and treasure.
Here in Sarawak, where the population includes people of different ethnic backgrounds, cultural practices and religious beliefs, food is just as colourful and diverse, with many dishes that are unique to the State. So it’s no surprise if the CNY staples in Sarawak are infused with local ingredients, to add a little more excitement and uniqueness to them.
The “unforgettable fish”
Fish, a must-have every Chinese New Year, is often steamed with ginger, spring onion and soy sauce, among other ingredients. But instead of using golden pomfret, seabass, carp, barramundi, tilapia or grouper for example, an exquisite option (if you can afford it) would be to use Empurau instead. Dubbed the “Unforgettable Fish”, the highly prized fish from the wild rivers of Sarawak can go for as much as RM1000 per kilogramme (cheaper if it’s farmed). Thanks to pristine living conditions and a diet of Engkabang fruit, Empurau has buttery smooth flavour and texture that are simply unforgettable, hence its nickname. Maybe after a year of having to deal with COVID-19, having this fish on the menu for your CNY family reunion dinner is not a bad idea at all.
Sarawak’s signature noodles
For some local flavour to your special CNY noodle dish, substitute the usual noodles with Sarawak’s Kolo Mee noodle. The star ingredient of Kuching’s iconic dish Kolo Mee and Tomato Crispy Mee, the noodle makes a perfect Sarawak style CNY dish. Another great option is Sibu’s famous Foochow braised fried noodle (Chao Zhu Mian). Mee Pok (thin, flat noodle) is great too, while Mee Sua is trickier to prepare and must be consumed immediately.
A dash of Gula Apong
Gula Apong is a traditional nipa palm sugar produced by the Malay folks in Sarawak. It can be found sold abundantly at roadside stalls especially in Asajaya area. Despite being a Malay product, Gula Apong is used by every Sarawakian to flavour their kuih, their drinks, ice-cream, and many others. Adding Gula Apong into glutinous rice ball dessert instead of using rock sugar or refined white sugar lends a floral aroma and creaminess to the sweet soup dessert.
Sweetness in green
This next food has no cultural link with Chinese New Year at all. But it IS Sarawakian and is often served during open houses for CNY, Gawai, and Hari Raya all the same. It can also be an optional dessert to end your Reunion Dinner meal with. Kek Lumut (Moss Cake) is so named for its mossy green colour. It’s a delicious local favourite that contains malt drink powder (Horlicks), kaya (coconut jam) and sweetened condensed milk.
With so much diversity in Sarawak, the options are limitless. And these are just some of the local take to traditional Chinese New Year dishes that will make this year’s family reunion dinner ever more special. With that said, Happy Chinese New Year from all of us at BorneoTalk.
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