Snacking Symbolisms: Lunar New Year Edition

Frequently consumed Chinese New Year Snacks in South East Asia

On the 5th of February this year, millions of families across Asia came together to celebrate the Lunar New Year. It is my favorite time of the year in Singapore. For those of you who know me well, food forms a central part of my life and hence Thanksgiving, Dussehra and Diwali (for the food) and Lunar New Year are events that I look forward to.

For many of my friends, the Lunar New year involves one-too-many sticky-sweet slices of Bak Kwa, bickering over that last pineapple tart in the tub, respectful exchanges of mandarin oranges, and happy conversations over mouthfuls of savory Bánh tét (my personal favorite).

As some of you know, Quilt.AI operates as a tech/human hybrid leveraging AI and Semioticians to better understand why we behave the way we behave (deep, right?). We often use Search data as a source. We did the same late last week and played with trying to identify the festive snacking patterns across Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam to understand how each country snacks during the Lunar New Year. We focused on food search spikes only. Then, using semiotic analysis, we identified the unique cultural symbolism associated with each snack. Across all four countries, we found that the bulk of festive foods could be categorized within one of the five broad groups: Wealth Snacks, Good Fortune Snacks, Harmony Snacks, Longevity Snacks, Happiness Snacks. Watch this space for a separate project to understand who favors which categories in life.

Here is some more texture to our analysis:

💰 WEALTH SNACKS are defined by Shape Resemblances to Money Formats: This is exemplified by dried Shrimp Rolls, Egg Rolls and Love Letters shaped like gold bars; cashews shaped like ingots and almond Cookies shaped like Gold Coins.

🀄 GOOD FORTUNE SNACKS involve unique Colour Connotations and Play on Phonetics: Bak Kwa has a distinctive red colour that is considered by the Chinese to be auspicious. Meanwhile, the phonetic similarities between the Hokkien phrasing of “pineapple” with “fortune coming” lends to the association of pineapple tarts with impending luck.

🌱HARMONY SNACKS resonate through Holistic Nature References: Banh Tet and Banh Chung, both highly popular sticky rices cakes consumed during Tet, are shaped in squares and circles respectively to represent the Earth and Sky. Likewise, Five Fruit Trays involve the careful selection of fruits, each paying homage of the five elements of Eastern philosophy: earth, air, fire, water and metal.

HAPPINESS SNACKS stand out for their Sticky Sweet Flavor Profiles: Sugary snacks like Nian Gao, Love Letters and Candied Coconut are often linked to the notion of a ‘sweet life’, and thus becoming representative of happiness.

🥜FERTILITY SNACKS are rooted in Specific Key Ingredients: Eggs, seeds and peanuts are all common signifiers of longevity and fertility — eggs and seeds due to their broader associations with the planting of new life, while peanuts (花生) because its second Chinese character (sheng 生) means “to give birth”. Consequently, snacks like egg rolls and almond cookies have, by association, gained new meaning as symbols of fertility and long life.

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