For nearly two decades, Shila Das has brought her chicken curry and nasi biryani to her best friend, Wendy Chua, for Lunar New Year celebrations together in their native Singapore. They start the day with those dishes, then they eat hot pot.
The women, both 51, began spending holidays together as teenagers, watching the lion dance perform in the spacious atrium of Ms. Chua’s grandfather’s home. almost three decades ago, the Chua family, who is ethnic Chinese, commissioned Ms. Das, who is Indian and Vietnamese, to preside over their household gatherings New Year’s ceremony lo hei, 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, tossing raw fish, crackers, sliced carrots and pickled ginger into the air as she shouted auspicious phrases in Chinese. (Lo hei means “throw good fortune” in Cantonese.)
“Just imagine. In this Chinese house, there is an 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 southeastern China; Hainan from the island province of Hainan; Hakka, a group of immigrants spread throughout China; and Peranakan, who have been in the region for over 400 years and are also of mixed Malay and European ancestry. Each ethnic group has its own set of traditions, but years of coexistence with each other and with other peoples such as the Malays and Indians have created the colorful and distinctive culinary fabric of the island.
Because Singapore is a port city where people from different cultures have mixed and shared food for centuries, sharing a multicultural holiday meal “is as natural as breathing,” said Christopher Tan, 49, a food writer who wrote a book of cooking on traditional cakes of Southeast Asia. . For the holiday, he makes nian gao, a sticky rice cake that is a Chinese symbol of prosperity.
Desserts for the festival used to be made mainly from rice grown in the region. But British settlement and eventual colonization brought wheat flour and butter to Singapore, which are now commonly used as well.
When Chef Shermay Lee visits her 90-year-old aunt for the holidays, she’s greeted with a plate of warm homemade pastries: thin elongated cookies, sweet pineapple tarts and paper-thin cookies rolled in dainty cigars. Those family recipes were passed down from Ms. Lee’s grandmother, Chua Jim Neo, a prominent Peranakan culinary personality and mother of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father and Prime Minister of Singapore.
Ms Lee said her grandmother also used to serve Lunar New Year dinner on festive red and gold lacquered 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 feast that New York City-based Peranakan cookbook author Sharon Wee grew up eating required weeks of preparation. Before Lunar New Year’s Eve, he would watch his mother season bright yellow noodles with sambal belacan, a spicy hot sauce, and a curry mixed with spices that she would dry and bloom, then take to an Indian miller for sale. to grind it Because her parents cooked a lot of New Year’s dishes that included pork, she also bought beef rendang for her halal-friendly Muslim friends.
For many Singaporeans today, cooking for two weeks straight is too much work. It is becoming more and more common for modern families to gather in a hotel restaurant for a single feast or to prepare simplified versions of traditionally prepared dishes.
“I think it’s easier to cook vegetables during the Chinese New Year period,” said Darren Ho, 32, a chef and belly dance instructor in Singapore. While meat is a popular choice for the holidays, Mr. Ho’s favorite food is chap chye, a holiday dish of braised cabbage flavored with spicy soybean paste. “Sometimes we get a little lazy, and this is the easiest quick fix,” he said.
Ms. Chua, who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Ms. Das, who lives in Seattle, will be reunited with their friends in Singapore again this year to celebrate.
“Our food is Chinese, Malaysian, Peranakan, Indian, Indonesian and Filipino,” Ms. Das said. “We are an extended family.”
Recipes: Singapore chicken curry | nasi biryani | Nian Gao (baked sweet potato sticky rice cakes) | Nonya Hokkien Stir Fry Noodles | Sambal shrimp paste | Chap Chye (braised cabbage and mushrooms)
And for drink …
The intricate combinations of spices and flavors in these Singaporean dishes can be difficult to pair with wine. My first choice is Riesling, preferably a moderately sweet style from Germany like spätlese or kabinett. The exciting balance of sugar and acidity in these wines makes them quite refreshing, the alcohol level is low, and they are generally delicious with a variety of complex and spicy Asian cuisines. I don’t usually drink dry gewürztraminer, with its luxurious aromas of roses and cold cream, but I also find that it goes quite well with dishes like these. Other options include fresh, dry whites, regardless of their origin, and young, juicy reds from the Loire. Good, dry ciders would be surprisingly delicious. So would the fine sherry. ERIC ASIMOV