Voon Suk Chen & Professor Dr Suzana Shahar
ANN/THE STAR – Chinese New Year (CNY) is all about tradition, gathering and feasting.
The food you find on the table during this festive season holds symbolic meaning, which often emphasises the bringing of luck and fortune.
While most of us happily devour the goodies, some might feel guilty about consuming copious amounts of “unhealthy” and calorie-rich food. But fret not, not everything you will eat this CNY is bad for you.
Here are some food you can definitely include in your menu to stay healthy!
PROSPEROUS AND HEALTHY
The following food items not only have good symbolic meanings, but are also healthy to consume.
During CNY, Mandarin oranges are everywhere as this golden fruit symbolises fortune.
Mandarin oranges are citrus fruits rich in vitamin C.
A medium-sized Mandarin orange (85 grammes) provides 24 milligrammes of vitamin C, which is about a third of your daily recommended vitamin C intake.
The bright orange-yellow colour comes from plant pigments called carotenoids, which are the precursor of vitamin A.
Besides vitamins, Mandarin oranges are also rich sources of fibre and antioxidants. It is recommended that you eat two servings of fruit every day.
One Mandarin orange is equivalent to one serving, so always remember to eat in moderation.
In Mandarin, leek is pronounced as suàn, which sounds the same as “counting” and symbolises an abundance of wealth. Leek provides dietary fibre, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, as most vegetables do. It is also low in calories. Include leeks in your protein dishes for more fibre (and colour).
A great example would be stir fry lean meat or tofu with leek. Based on the 2020 Malaysian Dietary Guidelines (MDG 2020), three servings of vegetables are recommended per day.
You may get constipated if you do not take enough fibre, so here’s a reminder to eat your veggies during the CNY celebrations!
Fish (yú) is always served on the table during the reunion dinner.
This is as it sounds like “surplus” or “abundance”. Fish is a good source of protein, and also rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Compared to red meat, fish has less saturated fat, ie the “bad” fat. Eating fish regularly is good for both heart and brain health, and reduces one’s risk for heart diseases and dementia. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish every week.
Steaming is one of the healthiest methods of cooking, and you may add natural flavourings such as ginger, scallion, tomatoes or Chinese mushrooms.
Pistachio nuts are known as “happy nuts” in Mandarin, and therefore, symbolise happiness.
They contain mostly unsaturated fat, ie the “good” fat. These nuts provide dietary fibre, protein, and certain vitamins and minerals.
However, do not overindulge on them or you will be in danger of consuming too many calories! It is recommended that you only take a handful of nuts every day.
Also, opt for unsalted pistachio nuts to reduce your sodium intake.
Dumplings are another popular food among Chinese families.
They are shaped like ingots and symbolise wealth.
Dumplings are usually steamed (ie a low fat cooking method) and contain a good mix of minced meat and vegetables such as cabbage or Chinese chives. They provide carbohydrates (dumpling skin), proteins (meat) and fibre (vegetables), which makes them a balanced meal.
For healthier options, try to pair dumplings with extra vegetables on the side to increase your intake of fibre. Also, go for steaming or boiling, instead of deep-frying, to cut down on your oil consumption.
Loh Han Jai
Some families eat Loh Han Jai, also known as Buddha’s Delight during this festival.
This vegetarian dish consists of mostly vegetables, as well as some vegetarian ingredients. These include shiitake mushrooms, snow peas, baby corn, carrots, black fungus, tofu, beancurd sheets, rice noodles and so on. This can be considered a balanced dish in terms of diet; it is also high in fibre.
However, if you plan to use fermented bean curd as the seasoning for this dish, do use it in small amounts as it is high in sodium.
AUSPICIOUS, BUT CAN BE HEALTHIER
Another way to turn your CNY meal into a healthy affair is to make the right kind of “swaps”.
Some families have steamboat dinners during CNY.
The steamboat pot is round in shape, so it symbolises reunions. It is a healthy cooking method, ie low in fat and calories.
In order to make your steamboat healthier, choose healthy and fresh ingredients. Swap processed food that are high in sodium like meatballs, sausages, fishcakes, crabsticks, cheese tofu, etc, with fresh ingredients.
Healthier protein sources include chicken, lean meat, fish, prawns and tofu. And don’t forget the veggies!
At least half of the ingredients should come from fresh vegetables like cabbage, spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms.
Watch out for the sauces too – do not have too many sauces, especially oil-based ones like chilli oil or sesame oil, and salty or light soy sauce. Instead, opt for fresh garlic and chilli, with a dash of soy sauce or vinegar as your dipping sauce when you are enjoying steamboat.
Another favourite during this festive season is Pen Cai (Poon Choy in Cantonese), where all the “luxurious” ingredients are simmered together in a large pot.
Examples of ingredients used are abalone, scallops, prawns, etc. This one-pot dish is very versatile and you can add in anything you like.
To make it healthier, include layers of vegetables like broccoli, Chinese cabbage, mushrooms and radish. Reduce the amount of sauces and condiments, such as oyster sauce, light soy sauce and dark soy sauce, especially if you have family members with high blood pressure.
Every house will have Nian Gao (kuih bakul) during this festival. Nian means “year” and Gao translates to “high up”, therefore, Nian Gao symbolises higher success or promotions.
It is made of glutinous rice flour and is typically sticky in texture. Some families will prepare Nian Gao fritters as a snack during Chinese New Year, where the Nian Gao is sandwiched with yam and sweet potato, then deep fried.
One piece of Nian Gao fritter (50 grammes) contains 220kcal. We suggest either using minimal oil or an air-fryer to prepare it; or better yet, just steam it and eat!
Pineapple tarts are a typical treat eaten during CNY.
The word “pineapple” in certain Chinese dialects – eg ong lai in Hokkien and wong lai in Cantonese – sounds similar to the phrase “prosperity comes”.
Pineapple tarts, with their sweet and tangy jam, can be really addictive!
Always be mindful when you are having pineapple tarts or any CNY snacks during house visits.
Take one to three pieces in a small bowl/plate, and eat slowly. Otherwise, you might end up eating non-stop!
Yee sang, also known as the prosperity toss salad, has become an exciting ritual during CNY.
Family, friends or colleagues will gather around the table with the dish in the centre to toss the ingredients high in the air with chopsticks while exclaiming their wishes out loud.
The act of tossing signifies abundant luck; the higher the better.
These days, we can see prepacked boxes of yee sang everywhere with colourful ingredients.
It saves time, but we suggest that they be swapped with healthier ingredients.
For example, use fresh ingredients, especially shredded fruits and vegetables, to increase fibre and also cut down on calories.