The significance of serving a whole fish for Chinese New Year dinner

Patricia Hului

There are many symbolic dishes to be eaten during the Chinese New Year season. However, it is more significant to have them for dinner on the eve of the Lunar New year.

One of those dishes is one whole fish. Did you know that it is considered a must-have and lucky food to have on Chinese New Year Eve?

The significance of a whole fish during Chinese New Year

There is a Chinese idiom, “年年有余 (nian nian you yu)”, meaning ‘to have abundance every year’.

The word ‘abundance’ in Mandarin has the same pronunciation as the word ‘fish’.

To have a whole fish served during Chinese New Year dinner symbolises the abundance you hope for the brand new year.

Why is it important to have the fish served as a whole? Can’t it just be served as fish fillet or half of a fish? Having a whole fish symbolises a good beginning and ending for the months to come. Another meaning is to serve as a reminder; to finish what you started.

Chinese Malaysians mostly follow the Southern Chinese tradition, which is to eat only the body, leaving the head and tail behind. This is to express the hope that the new year will start and finish with surplus.

Again, when eating the fish, do not turn the fish over. It is as if a boat is being overturned and your blessing will be overturned too,

How should it be cooked?

Steamed fish with soy sauce. Credit: Pixabay

The most common way to prepare your fish is to steam it. The important thing to remember, however, if you want tender fish meat is not to over-steam it.

Usually, it takes eight minutes for a smaller fish or 12 minutes for a bigger fish. According to Chef Leung Fai Hung, a fish weighing 1 catty (0.6kg) takes six minutes to steam, while a fish twice the size will take double the time.

Moreover, only place your fish in the steamer after the water has come to a boil.

When it comes to picking recipes, Teochew-style steamed fish is known for its sourness because of the use of pickled plums or pickled vegetables.

Meanwhile, the typical Cantonese-style typically uses light soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and sesame oil as flavouring.

Another common recipe for steamed is using fermented black bean.

Of course, the less healthy way to cook your fish is to fry it. After frying it, you can top it with any sauce you want, for example sweet and sour sauce or soy sauce.

With the Covid-19 pandemic still raging and homes experiencing flooding as the Year of the Metal Rat moves into the Year of the Metal Ox, why not try to cook a fish on your own while staying at home this Chinese New Year?

Steamed fish with black bean sauce. Credit: Pixabay.