Before You Begin
Getting ready to cook up a storm for Chinese New Year? You are not the only one, a lot of people are equally excited to prepare for the reunion dinner, and that means making family favourites that are a staple for the festive season.
But before you put on the apron, turn on the gas and get your Chef Wan mode going, you might want to keep a few things in mind beforehand. For one, if you are a new caregiver looking after an elderly member of the household, you will need to carefully consider their dietary requirements based on their current health. Do you need to count their calorie intake? Are there foods that your loved one needs to consume in smaller portions?
What you can do is see an accredited practising dietitian for advice. A dietitian helps people to improve their overall health through nutrition-related advice. This includes providing dietary advice to help people manage their diet in cases of diabetes, obesity and various other health complications. They will ask questions about your loved one’s current diet, exercise habits, general health and lifestyle before tailoring a diet plan suitable for your loved one. You can also ask questions that can help you with planning meals for your loved one, including what they should take or avoid, and if any foods may adversely interact with medications your loved one takes.
Congee (Rice Porridge)
Here’s an interesting factoid: what we commonly refer to as jūk (in Cantonese) or zhōu (in Mandarin) is actually known as congee in English or rice porridge. In the West, porridge is typically made out of oats and topped with nuts and fruits. Congee’s roots go as far back as 1000 BC during the Zhou Dynasty and are widely considered a comfort food even to this day. Despite being a seemingly plain dish, congee is served in various forms with a variety of ingredients, each with its own special qualities. The eight treasure congee, for example, is served as a dessert packed with red beans, black and glutinous rice, dried dates, peanuts, lotus seeds, pine nuts, raisins and sugar.
Homemade congee is still the best option to serve your loved one, as most places that make congee may have a high amount of salt and seasonings in them. The challenge is finding the right rice to water ratio: too much water and it becomes more like rice soup; too little and it might get dry and starchy.
The charm of congee is how versatile it is as a dish. You can add fish or shredded chicken as protein sources, have diced vegetables for vitamins, add some chicken stock or shredded ginger to enhance its flavour and aroma. You can also reduce salt and substitute it with other ingredients that can augment the flavours while reducing your loved one’s sodium intake.
In various Chinese dialects, fish (yoo) is a homophone for the Chinese character for “surplus” or “leftovers”. The fish is normally served whole to symbolise a prosperous year ahead; it will be served for the reunion dinner, where some leftovers will be kept for New Year to bring extra luck throughout the rest of the year.
Steaming is a healthy way to prepare fish, as it does not add any oil or fat to the fish, while also preserving the nutrients in the fish, including highly beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. You can also grill the fish instead, but avoid charring the flesh. For additional benefits, consider removing the fish skin and any visible fat before you start. Try to aim for cod, mackerel, salmon, or sardines that are rich in omega-3.
A delectable dish consisting mainly of vegetables that are braised gently and served in a bowl. According to myth, 18 monks came together to honour their ancestors and each contributed their favourite ingredients to make a meal as a sacrifice for Chinese New Year. Today, various places have their own unique take on Buddha’s delight.
It is also relatively easy to make a recipe that comes with the benefit of being very healthy, especially for seniors. Some of the usual ingredients found in the dish include arrowroot, leeks, snow peas, tofu, lotus seeds, mushrooms, wood ears, chives, carrots and more. You can always add or remove ingredients based on preference.
Another popular traditional dish to serve for Chinese New Year, dumplings (jiǎozi in Mandarin) are made to look like Chinese ingots used in the olden days. Dumplings are oval, boat-shaped delicacies made from thin dough skins stuffed with minced meat and finely-chopped vegetables. It is said that the more dumplings you eat, the more prosperous you will be for the rest of the year.
Dumpling recipes also come in various flavours and fillings. You can make them softer and smaller for your loved ones if they may have difficulty chewing or swallowing food. You can stuff them with chicken, shrimp, lamb, vegetables, or a mixture of many savoury tastes. You can also steam them or pan-fry them to create different textures and tastes that will be suitable for your loved one. If you do want to fry them, make sure not to apply too much oil when cooking the dumplings. Because they are often eaten with a dip, make sure you pick a dipping sauce that is low on gluten and salt, such as tamari.
Longevity noodles are a staple during Chinese New Year and many other auspicious events. Long, uncut strands of noodles are served either dry or in a hearty soup. They are then eaten, without being chewed on, as a way to symbolise long life; the longer the noodles, the longer your life will be. Not only that, but they also signify prosperity and good luck.
If you know how to hand-make the longevity noodles, that’s great! Otherwise, you can still buy noodles from local shops or supermarkets. Be sure to check the nutritional content of the noodles, and buy one that will be compatible with your loved one’s diet. When cooking the noodles, consider making them a little softer so that it is easier for your loved one to enjoy them.
A family-oriented meal, hot pots (or steamboats) are highly customisable food experiences shared by the family with laughter and lots of eating. Some establishments have you pick between a hearty chicken broth or a spicier tom yam style broth, or you can have both using a pot that separates the two.
We would highly recommend going with one broth only, and to have a steamboat meal at home instead of dining out. That way you can reduce food wastage by being able to plan for the number of guests you are accommodating, plus have a wider variety of healthy options available for everyone. Your loved one may also not be able to eat a lot, so be sure to help them by adjusting their portion and limiting what types of food they eat. Go for leaner cuts of meat and seafood to replace processed foods, and be sure to have more vegetables available as well. You can also serve noodles, too.
Glutinous Rice Cakes
Made with sticky rice or glutinous rice flour, these cakes (nian gao in Mandarin) were originally served as offerings to ancestors and deities in ancient times. Now a staple every Chinese New Year, rice cakes are eaten as a wish for every year to be better than the last. These treats do have a high-calorie count because of their ingredients, but you can steam or bake them to make them a little healthier. It is advisable to limit your loved one’s consumption of these snacks. One glutinous rice cake recipe we found happens to be baked and gluten-free.
The whole chicken is yet another auspicious symbol that represents family togetherness, reunion, peace and good fortune. Being a rich source of protein, chicken is a good choice for meals, and steaming it would make a healthy dish that everyone can enjoy. Be sure to clean the chicken thoroughly, get rid of the skin, and remove any visible fat you can find. During mealtime, cut the chicken into small, manageable bites for your loved one, and be careful of small pieces of bone that might be in between the meaty parts.
In Cantonese, prawn is pronounced har, which sounds just like laughter. Eating prawns for Chinese New Year is said to bring joy and happiness to the entire family for the whole year. It is advisable to get the biggest prawns you can find to maximise that good luck.
Prawns, like most kinds of seafood, come with a range of merits to one’s health, but your loved one might have difficulty peeling off the prawn skin, let alone eating them. If they happen to have an allergy to seafood, you should consider keeping it off the menu or make sure they do not have any. Avoid serving raw prawns as well, as they may contain harmful bacteria and viruses that might make your loved one severely ill.
If your loved one can eat prawns, consider buying fresh prawns and then peeling them before cooking, or buy good quality peeled prawns instead. You can then have them served in a variety of ways: maybe have them as part of a steamboat meal, or steam them and enjoy them with a special dipping sauce.
A popular street food, popiah is basically like a wrap containing minced shrimp, beancurd, french beans, shallots and jicama (turnip). You can find it in many hawker centres and streetside stalls, but making your own will be a healthier option. Because of how soft a popiah’s wrapping and fillings are, they make for excellent appetisers or snacks for your loved one. The wrap itself is steamed, while the fillings are fried in oil. Control the amount of oil you use, and add more vegetables to give it a solid but delightfully chewy taste.
Double Boiled Soups
The double boiling process, or dun, involves submerging a ceramic pot in water for slow, even cooking at a gentle boil that extracts the maximum flavour of the soup without sacrificing any nutritional content. Soups are considered to be tonics that are both refreshing and invigorating, and many soups are known to have a number of health benefits. One recommendation is to use chicken to enhance the flavour, and then add in a variety of herbs and vegetables such as ginseng, ginger, cabbage and more.
Oranges & Tangerines
A great source of vitamin C and fibre, oranges and tangerines are also viewed as lucky fruits to have for Chinese New Year. Phonetically, the word for orange is chéng, which means “good fortune” or “success”. Physically, the round, golden shape of the fruits are representative of fullness and wealth. You can help your loved one peel the orange and cut the slices into smaller, bite-sized pieces, and remove the seeds as well. Be sure that they eat in moderation, as eating too many can lead to unwanted gastrointestinal issues.
Another popular snack served for Chinese New Year, peanuts represent vitality, longevity, riches and honour, as well as the wish to bear many children. Many types of peanuts, when served right, can provide a number of health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties. A lot of commercially sold peanuts are high in salt, preservatives and flavourings which can be detrimental for your loved one.
Consider buying ready-to-eat peanuts sold in bakeries or supermarkets, instead, which you can then bake at home without needing to add anything else. Alternatively, shop smart and look for peanuts that are low on sugar, salt, preservatives and other additives. If your loved one may have difficulty chewing or swallowing, avoid serving them peanuts to prevent any unpleasant scenarios.
Also known as jujubes, red dates are yet another popular snack used in many Chinese recipes. Its red colour makes it an auspicious ingredient to add, and its Mandarin spelling (zǎo) can be translated to “early”, or basically a head start. A simple 3 ounce serving of red dates is packed with goodness, including vitamin C, protein, fibre and potassium.
Red dates are excellent snacks that are sweet and chewy. When picking red dates, buy raw dates that are either unseeded or otherwise; the seeds are relatively easy to remove. They can be used in a variety of dishes and drinks to add some additional flavour, but they are still a concentrated source of sugar, so be mindful of the quantities you use.
If you think you might have some trouble juggling festive preparations and caring for your loved one, Homage is ready to help you. If you might need help with your loved one’s meal prep, eating and drinking, or general care provision, our trained care professionals are able to provide companionship, nursing care, night caregiving, home therapy and more, while ensuring you have time to prepare for the coming festivities.
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