Every year when the radio and TV advertisements start rolling out McDonald’s “Prosperity Burger” announcements, I know Chinese New Year is not too far around the corner. One can’t help but draw some nostalgic memories as a kid, seated behind the driver’s seat and listening to either a parent or someone who is old enough to drive yelling out the order at the drive-through, drooling over that possibly juicy piece of questionable meat dripping with hot black pepper sauce.
If you were one of those 80s babies that grew up in Malaysia like I did, I am pretty sure that memory is a part of your recollection of celebrating Chinese New Year.
With this season of prosperity, comes a parade of food that is especially served at this time. The thing about festive food, I have realised many moons ago, is that they are served repetitively in different homes and different restaurants and let’s face it, unless we are socially awkward or hermits, there will always be more than just one Chinese New Year lunch and dinner get-togethers to have beyond just with our immediate family members.
If you have recently developed a more attuned way of living, that means choosing only the best ingredients to enter your digestive system (and bidding the Prosperity Burger adieu once and for all!), the festive season can prove to be a challenging season to stay on track. Firstly, and let me just get this out there so that everyone knows there is no pressure in trying to be perfect or eat “perfectly” 100% of the time, it is okay to indulge a little. But if you choose to do so, make sure there are no feelings of guilt or shame when you find yourself staring down the empty plastic container that used to house all of your mother’s homemade pineapple tarts.
That being said, over the years I have developed a few “life hacks” to ensure I don’t veer too far off into the unhealthy zone of feeling bloated or battling the high and lows caused by overconsumption of sugar - not just white sugar, but anything that actually tastes sweet, which includes those juicy plump tangerines that used to arrive at the office in crates and boxes.
1. Load up on the fish
Known commonly as yee sang and often served only in Malaysia and Singapore during the festive season, this is the one dish that I almost always look forward to having. The dish that allows every one to toss and play with their food while screaming out their wishes - what is there not to like about the rituals of eating yee sang? Typically though these days, shrimp crackers are served in place of fried dried shrimp and most are laced with monosodium glutamate (MSG). If you are particularly sensitive to the effects of this additive and easily experience headaches or dizziness after consuming it, but would still love to join in the fun of tossing and making your wishes known to the rest of your colleagues or friends, then opt for the fresher ingredients like carrots, daikon (or white radish) and of course the salmon.
Chinese New Year is also about the fish as the word yu, a homonym for fish also means “abundance”. This is the one item that perhaps; a tiny overindulgence may not necessarily be a bad idea. Fish is a good source of Omega 3 fatty acids, which is a critical component for a healthy brain. It is also a good source of protein and contains much less cholesterol compared to beef or chicken.
2. Choose seeds and nuts over sweets
You know those rotating circular dishes that hold a multitude of smaller dishes? Typically in those mini dishes are many different delights both sweet and savoury. This I suspect is a recurring theme across different festivities, be it Chinese New Year, Diwali or Hari Raya. The only difference is perhaps what is being served. Pumpkin seeds, roasted watermelon seeds along with candied lotus roots are main features for Chinese New Year. And yes, let us not forget the pineapple tarts. Where possible, resist from indulging in the sweet items as even something as “healthy” sounding as dried lotus roots are often coated with layers of candied sugar. Instead, try to adopt the mindset of “crowding out” which means eating more of the healthier options like roasted seeds or nuts so that by the time those sweet items rotate towards you, there is less space in your stomach for it. Roasted watermelon seeds are not only low in calories, but also contain trace amounts of magnesium, iron and folate. Be aware of flavoured or excessively salted nuts and seeds when reaching out for these.
3. Go easy on mandarins and tangerines
Fresh fruits are always a good choice although too much of it could be counterproductive. Mandarins or sometimes known as tangerines, are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin A, folate and potassium. However, when too much of it is eaten in one sitting, the natural sugar in these fruits can spike your blood sugar levels. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, mandarins are also prescribed for those who are deficient in Yang constituency as it brings ‘heat & warmth’ to the person. This means if you happen to overindulge, you might end up with a bit of a sore throat in the next few days as your body tries to release the heat and equalise itself.
4. More liquids than solids
Sweet tong yuen is often served at the end of a meal. These bowls of often warm soymilk or clear sweet ginger broth comes with a few glutinous rice balls filled with sweet sesame, peanuts or red bean paste. Fill your bowls with more liquid and less of the rice balls. Soy milk (here’s hoping they come from GMO free organic soy beans!) contain calcium and iron as well as essential amino acids. Ginger broth is great in aiding digestion following a meal.
5. One for those with special dietary needs – eat before you leave the house!
I wanted to add this final tip as it is close to my heart since I chose to no longer consume animal meat (aside from some seafood like fish). Attending open houses can be a challenge especially if the host is not aware or does not know to cater to your special dietary needs. This applies to those who are also gluten intolerant or allergic to a particular food item like peanuts. Sometimes though we attend these functions because we genuinely want to reconnect with our friends and family. The trick to ensuring that you do not starve whilst still adhering to your moral, ethical or health requirements when it comes to food, is to either politely let the host know of your dietary requirements or eat first before you actually arrive to the open house. This way, by the time you arrive, you can choose the healthier options to snack on (see 2 and 3 above) and mingle happily with the other guests.
Happy Chinese New Year, everyone!