Chinese New Year is synonymous with a plethora of snacks that typically get churned out at this time of year.
If you’re phasing out your meat, egg and dairy products from your diet, don’t worry… you’re not completely losing out on the fun! You can still enjoy your catch-up sessions, card games and movie marathons with your relatives while munching on some of these well-loved bites. Everything in moderation though! I’ve listed here a list of some popular snacks in Malaysia, what they symbolize at this momentous time of year, and which of these snacks are plant-based.
NOTE: I am sitting on the more moderate side of the fence here, where white sugar is considered vegan, for the sake for those in transition or not so strict with their preferences. Read more about the the manufacturing process of white sugar here. Brown sugar, when it is raw and unrefined, is considered vegan-friendly.
Candies are served to guests during Chinese New Year to wish them a sweet life. Sweet for vegans to eat too! A candy tray frequently features sweetened, preserved and brightly coloured pieces of cherries, plums, peaches, dates and even sometimes kiwifruit. Preserved fruits are an acquired taste, but kids can happily stay occupied with the next candy on the list.
Long before I got to know those peculiar species of people known as flakes, a different kind of flake defined my childhood. Made from the fruit of the Chinese hawthorn tree, Haw Flakes are light, tangy and strangely addictive. When I tried fresh hawthorns during my kungfu days in China, boy were they SOOOUUURRRRRR AF. It’s one of those rare times I would highly recommend the processed version of a fruit over being eaten fresh.
Love Letters (Kuih Kapit)
Love letters are so-called for actually being love letters once upon a time. Secret lovers would exchange messages of affection hidden within these delicate sheets of wafer. The recipe is believed to have been inspired by waffles made by the Dutch during their colonial reign in Malaysia. The local community adapted it to feature more accessible ingredients like rice flour and coconut milk. Sadly for vegans, egg is a must-have ingredient.
Bak Kwa (Chinese meat jerky)
Vegan? OPTION AVAILABLE
I am serious. There is such a thing as vegan Bak Kwa. These sweetened slices of barbecued meat (normally pork) are popular Chinese New Year snacks thanks to their red hue, signifying luck and fortune. Bak Kwa were my absolute fave in my non-vegan days. Shortly after going vegetarian, I found a plant-based version of Bak Kwa in one of my regular cafes and I jumped on it faster than anyone could hear it. What’s great about it vegan Bak Kwa? It tastes EXACTLY LIKE THE REAL THING. What’s even greater? It is CHEAPER THAN THE REAL THING TOO. I can buy a 200g box of plant-based Bak Kwa for RM12, which is close to half the price of regular Bak Kwa. You can purchase them at selected Chinese vegetarian stores and cafes in the Klang Valley. Unfortunately, by the time you read this, majority of these stores would be closed for festivities. But you can make a note for next year. And they are available to purchase all year round.
Kuih Bahulu (Asian Madeleines)
The origins of Kuih Bahulu come from old Malay tradition, when these cakes were presented as gifts by those who travelled by water. (The word ‘Bahulu’ comes from the Malay phrase ‘Buah Tangan Daru Hulu’, which translates to ‘small gifts from upstream’.) With its crusty exterior and fluffy interior, Kuah Bahulu can be best likened to a French Madeleine. It is a simple sponge cake made of wheat flour, eggs, baking soda and sugar. However,the process of making it is meticulous, and therefore was a treat only reserved for an occasion as special as Chinese New Year. With egg being an essential ingredient, vegans will have to skip Kuih Bahulu.
Known as ‘Longevity Nuts that represent, vitality and honour, you can be sure that your vitality will be honoured this Chinese New Year; these humble little guys are packed with over 20% protein.
Nian Gao (New Year Cake)
Pronounced as Niángāo, New Year Cake is as good as incidentally vegan snacks get during CNY. The ingredients for a typical block of cake is: Glutinous Rice Flour, Brown Sugar and Water. Some are manufactured with wheat flour too, so for those who are choosing gluten-free options, make sure to check the ingredient list before consuming. In Mandarin, Nian Gao is a homonym for ‘high year’, so these sticky cakes are a symbol of good things coming your way in the coming year. Being pan-fried on its own makes Nian Gao vegan-friendly. If it is fried in ‘popiah’ skin or paired with yam and deep-fried in batter, be mindful of asking if the skin or batter contains egg.
The translation of the word ‘Pineapple’ in several Chinese dialects features the word that means ‘prosperity’. This association with wealth is why decorations shaped like pineapples adorn many Chinese-run establishments at this time of year. The tart aspect of this snack originates back to the time where Malaysia was colonized by the Portuguese. The tart crust is normally made with butter and egg. If you are alright with eating the pineapple jam part only, by all means remove the crust and toss it outside the house for the birds to enjoy. Determined to not miss out? There’s a recipe for vegan pineapple tarts here.
The mandarin orange in the Cantonese language features the word ‘kam’, which sounds similar to the word used for ‘gold’. Its bright orange skin is also reminiscent of gold. Mandarins are therefore passed around in abundance during Chinese New Year to represent wealth and good luck. Health-wise, the luck is immediately tangible with its high vitamin C and fibre content. Eating plenty of Mandarins during your reunion will help to keep illness – and constipation – at bay.
Kuih Bangkit (Tapioca / Sago cookies)
Biting into Kuih Bangkit is almost like sinking your teeth into solid cloud. Its trademark powdery texture melts quickly in your mouth like a smooth, milky dream. Despite it looking vegan enough, it does contain eggs. Fret not: Here’s a recipe for making it vegan.
Kuih Rose (Rose cookies)
These snacks are also known as Honeycomb or Beehive cookies and have roots in Indian cuisine (which in that instance are called Achu Murukku or Achappam). Despite being deep fried, Kuih Rose is thin, crunchy and light. The batter is typically made of mixed flours, coconut milk, eggs and sugar. There are numerous tutorials online on how to make them eggless, like this one.
If you love very muchy all the ‘kuaci’, more power to you! Sunflower seeds are high in Vitamin E and B and several minerals including iron and calcium. In Chinese Culture, sunflower seeds symbolize having many children and grandchildren. Not to say that this will be the case if you’re scoffing them down like a squirrel. I love sunflower seeds and still happily married with two cats.
Mini Spring Rolls
Eating spring rolls at this time of year is an auspicious act of welcoming wealth into your life. Mini spring rolls are typically filled with meat floss. If you are phasing out your red meat, those filled with chicken floss is fine to eat. If you are a pescetarian (a vegatarian who eats seafood), opt for those filled with shrimp floss. As a vegan, I’m happy to have had my hefty share of these babies back in the day.
UPDATE: I found a vegan version of mini spring rolls at MG’s Cafe during the Chinese New Year season! It uses vegan meat floss in place of shrimp. Hopefully this is a regular thing that the cafe chain does every CNY!
These umami bombs also known as ‘Ngaku’ chips are a recent addition to CNY snack fare. Made out of the painstaking process of frying thin slices of the already pricey arrowroot bulbs, it’s no wonder why arrowroot chips are cherished so much. The price of a regular-sized container tends to range between RM16-RM22. It is hands down one of the tastiest chip I’ve ever put in my mouth, and have no problem forking out money to enjoy these golden morsels at this time of year. And with every single bite I thank the almighty heavens that it is plant-based.
VEGAN? Most of them
As long as you don’t choose yogurt or any other milk-based packet drink, pretty much all other drinks are up for the taking. My favourite is Winter Melon Tea. Now that I’m making a more conscious effort to reduce my waste, I would only take one packet drink, or refrain from it completely.