In Singapore, the Lunar New Year is a multicultural celebration

For about two decades, Shila Das brought her chicken curry and nasi biryani to her best friend, Wendy Chua, for their Lunar new year ce...


For about two decades, Shila Das brought her chicken curry and nasi biryani to her best friend, Wendy Chua, for their Lunar new year celebrations together in their native Singapore. They start the day with these dishes and then have a fondue.

The women, both 51, began spending the holidays together as teenagers, watching lion dance troupes perform in the vast atrium of Ms Chua’s grandfather’s house. Almost three decades ago, the Chua family, of Chinese origin, has appointed Mrs. Das, who is Indian and Vietnamese, to preside over their household New Year’s Eve lo hei ceremony, a Singaporean tradition centered around yu sheng, one of the country’s most popular New Year’s dishes. Ms. Das led the family in tossing ingredients, throwing raw fish, crackers, flaked carrots and pickled ginger into the air while shouting auspicious phrases in Chinese. (Lo hei means “tossing good fortune” in Cantonese.)

“Just imagine. In this Chinese house, there is this Indian girl who stands on the stool and leads the lo hei every year,” Ms Das said.

The Lunar New Year, which falls on February 1 this year, is celebrated in Singapore mainly by members of the Chinese diaspora, who make up three quarters of the population. They include those who are Hokkien, Cantonese, and Teochew from southeast China; Hainanese from the island province of Hainan; Hakka, a group of migrants spread across China; and Peranakan, who have been in the area for over 400 years and also have mixed Malay and European ancestry. Each ethnic group has its own set of traditions, but years of living among them, and among other peoples like Malays and Indians, have created the island’s colorful and distinctive culinary fabric.

Because Singapore is a port city where people from different cultures have mixed and shared food for centuries, sharing a multicultural holiday meal “comes as naturally as breathing,” said Christopher Tan, 49, a food writer who wrote a cookbook about traditional Southeast Asian pastries. For the holidays, he prepares nian gao, a sticky rice cake that is a Chinese symbol of prosperity.

Festive desserts were mostly made from locally grown rice. But British colonies and eventual colonization brought wheat flour and butter to Singapore, which are now also commonly used.

When the cook Shermay Lee visits her nonagenarian aunt during the festivities, she is greeted with a platter of warm homemade pastries: thin elongated biscuits, sweet pineapple pies and thin cookies rolled in delicate cigars. These family recipes were passed down from Ms. Lee’s grandmother, Chua Jim Neoa prominent Peranakan culinary personality and the mother of Lee Kuan Yewfounding father and first Prime Minister of Singapore.

Ms Lee said her grandmother also served Lunar New Year dinner on festive red and gold lacquer china, with forks and knives instead of chopsticks – a typical Peranakan table setting. “It’s part of Singapore’s colonial history,” said Ms Lee, who rewrote and updated her grandmother’s cookbooks.

The 15-day party that Sharon Wee, a New York-based Peranakan cookbook author, growing up eating took weeks of preparation. Before Lunar New Year’s Eve, she watched her mother season bright yellow noodles with sambal belacan, a tangy hot sauce and a curry mixed from spices that she dried and bloomed, then brought to an Indian miller for the grinding. Because his parents cooked many New Year’s dishes that included pork, they also bought rendered beef for their halal muslim friends.

For many Singaporeans today, cooking for two weeks straight is just too much work. It’s increasingly common for modern families to gather at a hotel restaurant for a single feast or cook up simplified versions of traditionally crafted dishes.

“I think it’s easier to cook vegetables during the Chinese New Year period,” said Darren Ho, 32, a chef and belly dance teacher from Singapore. While meat is a popular holiday choice, Mr. Ho’s go-to meal is chap chye, a festive dish of braised cabbage flavored with tangy soybean paste. “Sometimes we get a little lazy, and that’s the easiest quick fix,” he said.

Ms. Chua, who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Ms. Das, who resides in Seattle, will meet their friends again in Singapore this year to celebrate.

“Our food is Chinese, Malay, Peranakan, Indian, Indonesian and Filipino,” Ms Das said. “We are an extended family.”

Receipts: Singaporean chicken curry | Nasi Biryani | Nian Gao (baked sweet potato sticky rice cakes) | Nonya Hokkien Stir Fried Noodles | Sambal Belacan | Chap Chye (braised cabbage and mushrooms)

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Newsrust - US Top News: In Singapore, the Lunar New Year is a multicultural celebration
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