Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar, and for 2020, Chinese New Year will fall on 25th January, initiating the Year of the Rat.
Celebrations last for fifteen days, but the eve and first day of the New Year are the important occasions when Malaysian-Chinese families get together for celebratory reunion feasts. Many families prepare a variety of special dishes of which chicken and fish are most prominent, as these meat dishes are auspicious and symbolise good fortune and so are served in the hopes of an abundant and a prosperous New Year.
Some of those celebrating Chinese New Year keep fully vegetarian, while others follow a vegetarian diet some of the time. Hence, being vegetarian during Chinese New Year is not uncommon.
Observing a Buddhist custom of honouring the animals that give themselves for our food, it is a norm for many families to abstain from eating meat particularly on the first day of the New Year. They also believe that by maintaining a vegetarian diet, they purify and cleanse their body, enhance longevity and obtain good karma for the New Year.
Yap Yit Leong has been a vegetarian for 18 years, and shares his experiences during Chinese New Year: “Eating vegetarian food during Chinese New Year is not an issue for me. My wife and children are vegetarians. So is my brother.
“But my parents are not vegetarians. They eat vegetarian dishes on the first day of New Year, but they cook mixed dishes for the family on the other days of the celebrations.
“My parents eat meat dishes while the rest of us eat vegetarian dishes.”
Festive vegetarian favourites
Yit Leong’s personal favourite is the vegetarian yee sang, which swaps the fish for bean curd, mushrooms and mock duck meat, but there are many other tasty vegetarian dishes common at Chinese New Year, especially those that symbolise positive traits.
“Buddha’s Delight” is a must-have dish, consisting of leeks, shiitake mushrooms, dried wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, bok choy and fatt choy vegetables, dried lily buds, cabbage, carrots and tang hoon glass noodles. All of these ingredients have particular auspicious meanings signifying prosperity, wealth, longevity and good luck.
Vegetarian dumplings are another top choice as they look similar to gold ingots from ancient China, thus representing wealth and prosperity. The vegetarian versions swap out the meat or shrimp for chives, sweet carrots and spicy ginger, and make superb appetisers at any time of year.
Combining bean curd wraps, shiitake mushrooms and green florets of broccoli - which are likened to gold, ancient coins and jade respectively – results in another auspicious favourite usually eaten on the first day of Chinese New Year: braised bean curd with mushrooms and broccoli.
Desserts are the most common vegetarian dish at Chinese New Year, and it’s hard to beat a chilled snow fungus soup with red dates and gingko. Simple and healthy, the tasty dessert is also a longevity tonic in traditional Chinese medicine, while also providing health and beauty benefits due to its high collagen content. The soup is sweet, thus drinking it on the first day of Chinese New Year invites sweet blessings for the year.
Not just religion
Religious beliefs are not the only reasons for adopting vegetarianism; health and environmental concerns matter as well.
“I became a vegetarian to promote a compassionate lifestyle. I also believe that cutting out meat entirely from my diet is healthy, and it helps to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, which is good for the environment,” says Yit Leong, who works in a bank in Kuala Lumpur.
Bryan Goh is a vegan who also doesn’t face major problems when it comes to eating vegetarian food during Chinese New Year: “I’m an interior designer in London, and I return to Malaysia every year to celebrate Chinese New Year with my parents and relatives.
“As a vegan, I don’t eat meat and dairy products. It’s relatively easier to be a vegan in the UK as there are many alternative choices available. My family in Malaysia understands my dietary requirements, so they cook some vegetarian dishes with no dairy products for me.
“However, it gets a little difficult when I go out to meet friends during Chinese New Year as there are not many Chinese vegan restaurants, as opposed to Chinese vegetarian restaurants. I try to be flexible and choose a simple vegetarian dish, ensuring that there’s no egg or milk cooked with it.”
Whether one adopts a temporary vegetarian diet for at least a day or embraces full vegetarianism, there is no shortage of Chinese vegetarian restaurants in the Klang Valley - such as Kechara Oasis New Age in PJ, Nature’s Vegetarian Restaurant in Bangsar and Fan Cai Xiang Vegetarian Restaurant in Taman Danau Desa - which cater to the increasing trend of families dining out for their Chinese New Year reunion feasts.