As Chinese New Year approaches, it’s no secret that people are predisposed to use the festivities as a reason to indulge a little more than usual.
However, dishes prepared to usher in the New Year are guilty of being heavily meat-based, and are often deep-fried before being drenched in rich gravies. It’s a triple-whammy: they’re not only excessively oily; they’re also a trove of calories that leave a rather unpleasant greasy aftertaste that lingers on the palate far too long for our liking. When the celebrations settle, the extra pounds from the festivities tend to settle on our bodies too.
Many people fall prey to Chinese New Year’s ‘good hospitality, good food, and good symbols’ principles for the year ahead, leading to indulging and bouts of over-eating. As we all know, that means an excessive intake of calories that is well over the daily recommended intake for the average person. But, if we’re able to watch our portions, or apply healthier cooking methods or ingredient alternatives, we’re still able to enjoy all the deliciousness of a New Year meal with all the wholesome health goodness it offers at the same time too.
Dietitian Teoh Wei Jie speaks to us on some of the meal ‘traps’ that you should look out for.
‘Poon Choi’ / Buddha Jumps Over The Wall
Calories : 350 kcal (A bowl)
‘Poon Choi’ and Buddha Jumps Over The Wall are dishes that are made-up of a hodgepodge of various ingredients that are layered atop of one another to create these delicacies. The top layer often consists of ‘luxurious’ seafood elements, such as dried scallop, sea cucumber, prawns, abalone, fish maw, oysters and mushrooms; while the middle portion is where the fatty meat cuts like roasted duck, roasted pork, pork belly and trotter reside. Vegetables can be found on the bottom foundation of the dish, where radishes, taro and Chinese cabbage soak up the flavourful juices from the hours of stewing.
These two traditional delicacies have overwhelmingly unbalanced ratios of meat to vegetables, and those suffering from high cholesterol, hypertension or high uric acid should not partake in these dishes for health reasons. Seafood and mushrooms contain purine, which forms uric acid upon oxidation; thus, excessive consumption of these foods may cause gout. Fatty meat cuts such as roasted duck and pork, although delicious and savoury, are high in fat and cholesterol. Resist drenching the rice with the gravies/sauces that come with the dishes as the long period of broiling or stewing causes the water-soluble purine to melt away and combine with the already-high salt content, making it unhealthier than it already is.
Ingredients which have been fried should undergo a quick rinse to rid them of excessive grease before being placed into the stewing pot. Adding various high-fibre vegetables, such as fungi, to the dish is also recommended. The vegetables should be layered at the very top of the dish to minimise absorption of all the bad, oily stuff, and lean meat should be used in place of the fatty cuts. Remember to watch your portions, and don’t over-indulge!
Fried Nian Gao
Calories: 160 kcal per piece (approximately 35g)
Fried Nian Gao is a must-have during the New Year, but it’ll also make the numbers on the scale go sky-high too! Coated with an egg wash, flour and then deep-fried, it’s no wonder that a single piece of fried Nian Gao is equivalent to 2 teaspoons of oil.
Made from glutinous rice flour and sugar, Nian Gao is considered a starchy foodstuff with zero nutritional value. If you’re really hankering for Nian Gao, pan-fry, or steam it instead. The latter is extremely delicious when paired with a coat of crushed nuts or oatmeal if you’d like a crunch to your bite.
Lap Cheong (Chinese Sausages)
Calories: Approximately 110 kcal for half a sausage (20g)
When the Cantonese celebrate the New Year, Chinese Sausages of the duck and original pork varieties are a staple at mealtimes. As the sausages are cured, the salt, sugar and fat content are very high. Although many are fans of Chinese Sausage Glutinous Rice, they are unaware that a small bowl already contains a whopping 350 calories!
For a healthier option, steam the sausages to remove some of the greasiness, and cook the glutinous rice without oil to cut the overall intake of fat.
Calories: 120 kcal for 2 pieces (30g)
Roasted pork is often made from the marinated 3-layered sections of the meat, and most people are often consuming mostly animal fat. The five-spice seasoning is also high in sodium. A piece of roasted pork generally has fat content that exceeds 5g, and since 1g of fat is equal to 9 calories, eating a small piece of it already amounts to 45 calories! Eating less of it in general would prove beneficial, and pan-frying would be a much better alternative to cooking this dish.
Roasted Duck / Roasted Chicken
Calories: 100 kcal per 2 slices (20g)
Roasted Chicken is generally healthier than Roasted Duck, as the duck has a rather thick layer of animal fat under its skin, leading to an overall greasier dish. However, another calorie culprit that is hidden in plain sight is the dipping sauce(s) that accompany these roasted dishes, often made with copious amounts of sesame oil. He suggests a healthier but equally yummy dipping sauce that is made with lemon juice, lemongrass and ginger that is able to counteract the greasy aftertaste. It’s a healthy, yet refreshing sauce to go along with the dish.
Calories: 145 kcal per 100g
The Chinese love the practice of ‘lou sang’ on the seventh day of the New Year, which is also known as ‘ren ri’, or Everyone’s Birthday, believing that it will bring forth good fortune and prosperity. Yee Sang consists of numerous ingredients, including raw fish, pickled ginger, red and white radish strips, raw shredded cabbage and fried dough-crisps, and is often drizzled with plum sauce, sesame oil, and a variety of other seasonings.
Due to the amount of preservatives used in the individual elements of yee sang, as well as the high fat content of the fried dough-crisps and sugar found in the sauces, yee sang technically isn’t the healthiest dish to treat yourself to when ushering in the New Year. To bump up the nutritional value of yee sang, add in more fresh fruits to make a ‘fruity yee sang’, which includes and is not limited to pear and apple slices. Use yoghurt or low-fat mayonnaise as the base for a healthier sauce alternative.
Calories: 350 kcal in a small bowl (150g)
The Fujian and Chaozhou people love their sweet taro, and it’s not hard to see why, with the treat symbolising a year filled with sweet abundance ahead. This traditional dessert is made by steaming taro before it is mashed. Lard, white sugar, and sesame are mixed together; and red dates, sugared lotus seeds and gingko are then combined during the cooking process.
Although lard has been omitted in modern versions of the recipe, sugar or condensed milk is used abundantly, something diabetics might wish to take note of before consuming. Make your own version of this dessert if you wish to control the amount of sugar that goes into the sweet taro dish. Or satiate your sweet tooth with wholesome recipes like red bean dumplings instead!
Although Chinese New Year is an annual festivity that deserves to be celebrated with the utmost joy through feasting, portion control is crucial. If our daily calorie intake exceeds the recommended amount by 500 a day, it’s easy to gain half to 1 kg within a week. Aside from these dishes, snacks and soft drinks should be avoided as well.
**The above values are just estimates, and the fat content of these foods might differ based on the individual’s cooking technique.