Features 4 minutes 16 February 2018

Origins: The Meaning Behind Chinese New Year Goodies From Around the World

Uncover some of the most interesting stories behind our favorite New Year snacks from around the world.

Lunar New Year is celebrated all around the world, not just by the Chinese, but also the Vietnamese, Koreans and other people groups that traditionally followed the lunar calendar. What they all have in common is that the festive season is a time of feasting and reunions. Here, we uncover some of the most interesting stories behind our favourite New Year snacks from around the world.

Bak Kwa

The Bak Kwa, literally meaning dried meat, is synonymous with Chinese New Year. This Hokkien treat originated from the province of Fujian in China. As poverty was widespread in the past, the consumption of meat is a luxury and only kept for special occasions such the celebration of the New Year.

These succulent barbecued meats are often dipped in a sugar and spice marinate before being air dried and roasted over charcoal.

The Bak Kwa is popular during the festive period due to its red colour. The Chinese believe that red signifies luck and fortunes. As such, whoever consumes the Bak Kwa will have lady luck knocking on their door very soon. (This is probably the reason why people spend hours in line for this sweet and savory jerkies to send to their loved ones.)


Pineapple Tart

A sweet treat with a Nonya origin, the pineapple tart is a staple and the poster child of any Chinese New Year bakery. These tarts are made by grating fresh pineapples and slowly cooking over a low fire until caramelized. The chewy pineapple is then placed on top of a scalloped shaped buttery pastry or shaped to be encased within.

The pineapple has a significant meaning in Hokkien, as it literally means the “coming of fortune.” This pastry is thought to bring prosperity and luck to whoever that consumes them. That is why it is served to guests or delivered to families, friends and important business partners.

Love Letter

Out of all the Chinese New Year goodies, the love letter is definitely one of the most poetic. Back in the day, these romantic pastries were often used by lovers to relay messages of affection and the consumption of the pastry would mean that the message is taken to heart.

For individuals familiar with how love letter pastries are made, they would say that it’s a labor of love. These pastries are made by pouring a thin layer of batter on an iron mold and baked over charcoal. It is then quickly taken off the heat and rolled up into a cylindrical shape.

Also known as ‘Kuih Kapit,’ these delicate pastries are thought to be inspired by the traditional Dutch waffles. The Malay and Peranakan community adopted this recipe and localized the snack with ingredients such as coconut milk and rice flour.


Kueh Bangkit

Like most Nonya dishes, the Kueh Bangkit is one fastidious cookie to crumble. Meaning "to rise," the name was derived from how the cookies would rise during the baking process. Depending on the texture and recipe, flours like arrowroot, tapioca or sago are used alongside ingredients such as coconut milk and pandan.

Did you know that these melt-in-your-mouth delights were originally altar offerings used for ancestral worship? These tapioca cookies are molded into various shapes and take on different meanings. For instances, the chrysanthemums symbolize good fortune, while goldfish shaped cookies meant prosperity.

Honeycomb Biscuit

Aptly named due to its resemblance to its namesake, the honeycomb biscuit is a common sight in South East Asia during the festive period. In Malaysia, it is also called kuih loyang, meaning "brass cakes," of which brass moulds were used to give it its iconic pattern.

This seemingly Asian pastry was actually influenced by the Rosette cookies from Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway. The coconut milk are used in the Asian version, on top of the flour, sugar and eggs. And as you might have guessed, consuming this dessert symbolises a sweet year ahead.


Banh Tet

The Vietnamese celebrate the coming of spring with none other than the Banh Tet. This glutinous rice dish is made with mung beans, pork fat, sliced pork and shrimp, mixed with spices and then wrapped with banana leaves, very similar to the Chinese Bak Chang.

This central dish of the festivities is thought to be strange to some as it literally translates to "split packages." However, the true meaning behind this dish is to actually promote close family ties. Making this treat can be time-consuming, so it provides the family a perfect bonding session to welcome the New Year.


Glutinous rice is the staple of most Asian cuisine, and the same can be said for the Koreans. The Yaksik is a sweet glutinous rice mixed together with chestnuts, pine nuts and jujubes, and often seasoned with honey, cinnamon, sesame oil and soy sauce.

The story goes that as an ancient Korean King intended to go on a journey, he was alerted by a crow of an impending revolt. The King’s life was thus saved and we have the crow to thank for this delicious glutinous New Year food.


Yakgwa is a Korean confection made of honey, sesame oil and wheat flour. This deep-fried dessert is traditionally enjoyed on Chuseok, the Korean New Year and various festive dates throughout the year.

"Yak" seems like a common word among Korean snacks and the reason is simple—these foods contain honey, often used as medicine due to its antiseptic properties. That is why many foods that contains honey has the word "yak," the Korean word for medicine.

This medicinal confection is highly regarded by the upper society and royalty due to the use of wheat (a cherished ingredient in the Korean culture) and the honey. It used to be made in the shapes of animals and birds, but as the year progressed, bakers found it easier to store when made into a flat coin shape. This also takes on the meaning "the health is wealth."



Before the existence of crisped rice, the Manchus created the Sachima. This sweet snack made with flour, butter and rock sugar originated in Northeast China by the Manchus and have since spread throughout the country. Every region puts a spin to this local delight, with the Cantonese adding sesame, raisins and desiccated coconut into the mix while the Fujian province substituting the rock sugar for malt sugar.

In Hong Kong, horse racing is a big affair during the festive season. That is also why it is believed that consuming these rice crackers before betting on a horse will bring them luck to win the race.


In Tibet, the New Year is celebrated with a pastry called the Gundain. This interesting pastry is made out of multiple steps. First, the barley grain and yeast are left to ferment into a light barley beer. Then it's mixed with Tsampa—a Tibetan toasted barley or wheat flour, dry curd cheese, ginseng and brown sugar.

This pastry is served as a first course the day of the New Year. It marks the beginning of the festive season of merrymaking and beer drinking.

Zi Dou Tang (Bean Candy)

As far as New Year treats go, the Zi Dou Tang is one of the coolest. This bean candy from the Anhui province in China is made out of only three ingredients: maltose, black sesame and soybean powder.

This is popular among the young and the old because auspicious Chinese characters are often inscribed on the candy by confectioners, making this one luck candy.


Bing Tang Hulu

Bing Tang Hulu—or, simply sweet hawthorn on a stick—is a famous Beijing street snack that can be found almost anywhere on the streets. There is an interesting story behind this ancient snack.

During the Song Dynasty, one of the Emperor’s imperial consort fell ill. The Emperor then summoned all the physicians to save her ailing health. It was one particular physician that was able to diagnose the problem, recommending the consumption of hawthorn. True enough, following the prescription from the doctor, the consort was fully recovered. This good news spread among the public and has since became a popular snack. This is also the reason why it symbolises happiness and family reunion.


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