Cover Photo: Courtesy of Jensen Hoi / Hong Kong Tatler

Plan ahead and eat your way towards a better lunar new year

With the Lunar New Year descending upon us, families and households are getting ready to welcome one of the most important festivals of the year, a time when every opportunity to give and receive good blessings for the year ahead are plentiful. When it comes to the traditions and practices leading up to the beginning of the Chinese New Year, it would be impossible to ignore the traditional Chinese New Year candy box, or tray of togetherness, where an array of meaningful goodies are offered to visiting guests throughout the festive days. Knowing your way around the diverse array of candy box offerings will give you the edge when it comes to gaining the blessings you wish for.

The most important item in the traditional Chinese candy box is the melon seed. The most popular melon seeds come in two colours—the smaller, auspicious red seeds (from watermelons widely grown in Ningxia region of China) and the larger, thicker dark seeds ;(from a form of smaller Chinese watermelon whose seeds are larger and harder and flesh) seasoned with five spice. Both varieties of melon seeds are considered to signify riches, and so when you're offered the candy box, it makes sense to begin by taking ;a small handful of melon seeds as per the traditional way; the motion resembles that of grabbing your riches in the next year.

These eight candied items are commonly found in the Chinese New Year candy box, each representing a specific meaning or blessing: Lotus seeds (improved chances of fertility); lotus root slices (plentiful riches); water chestnuts (high spirits and wellness); sliced carrots (their resemblance to gold coins signify wealth); tangerines (a homonym for gold, and representing luck); coconut chunks and shreds (in Cantonese the word coconut rhymes with grandparents, meaning expanding the family unit with more children); and winter melon batons (the even ends of the iced ;winter melon chunks signify good beginnings and endings).

This section needs a short explanation of why there are these contemporary candies within the candy box, even if it’s just to say it’s for having a sweet year. Traditions aside, there is always room for more varieties of candies within the traditional candy box.

Gold coins—the meaning of which are obvious—are generally made with chocolate with low cocoa but higher sugar content, which yields a sweeter treat.

Produced in Shanghai, by the esteemed Guan Sheng Yuan company, White Rabbit candies are one of China's proudest creations and a staple in many a candy box. The nougat-like milk candy reminds one of fudge made with condensed milk, wrapped with a thin layer of glutinous rice wafer paper.

Sugus candies are most recognised for their colourful wrappers. Created by Swiss businessman Philippe Suchard, the original Sugus candies are square-shaped and rather flat, with an abundance of fruit flavours including cherries, strawberries, lemon, orange, and pineapple. Now the newer flavours such as green apple, and grapes are developed. The iconic neon-toned wrappers and chewy candy in pastel-hues are colourful additions to the candy box. 

While melon seeds and candies are the primary features in the traditional candy box, some prefer adding festive pastries into the mix. Sesame doughnuts are prepared with biscuit dough, rolled into balls and coated with toasted sesame seeds before they are deep-fried until golden brown. The cooking process produces a crack on the surface of the pastry, resembling the shape of a laughing mouth, hence the name 笑口棗. The pastry is available all year-round but the quality is often best during Chinese New Year with its auspicious appearance. 

With abundant selections available to fill the average Chinese New Year candy box, it is crucial to keep it topped up at all times—a signifier of maintaining your wealth throughout the year, while also offering guests a chance to choose their own blessings and fortunes when they visit. It is believed that such fortunes are most likely to come true when shared among family and friends.