Last updateSun, 29 Jan 2017
Tuesday, 08 March 2016 18:56

10 local dishes and snacks plus their meanings (Part One)

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It is hard to avoid using homophones when describing local dishes and snacks, particularly the ones Singaporean Chinese people eat. Most of the food Singaporean Chinese people eat every day, at family gatherings or during festive seasons are inspired by homophones – words that sound the same – that have very similar meanings, with ju “桔” (orange) and “吉” (luck) being examples. Fuchsia Dunlop, author of the ‘Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook’, says many of the meanings given to Chinese food are homophones of their name in Mandarin. “In the Chinese language, so many different characters have the same sound and it’s ripe for wordplay.”

If you are a gourmand who is into homophones and wordplay, you will find plenty of food, particularly Chinese food, with interesting sounding names that are meaningful. Here we go, starting with five local dishes and snacks with interesting names and meanings to check out. We like #1, #2 and #4!

#1. Mandarin Oranges (桔子/Kum or Kim) 


Mandarin oranges are yellow-orange in color, hence its Cantonese homonym “kum” (gold). Plus the mandarin orange is called “ju” (桔) in Mandarin – and this sounds like “luck” (吉).

Another interesting and fun fact about the mandarin orange: its sweet, sweet taste represents happiness and wealth, and when presented in pairs, is twice auspicious (双喜).

#2. Fish

fish fried fish

Fish is called “yu” (鱼), which sounds like the word “surplus” (余). According to traditional Chinese belief, fish has to be eaten as a whole in order to be considered a prosperous dish. 


What about the Teowchew salad dish called yusheng (魚生)? Yusheng is regarded an auspicious dish because of its homonym: “魚” means fish and “生” life, thus implying “abundance of wealth and long life”.
In Cantonese, yusheng is known as lo sheng which means tossing up [for] good fortune”.

#3. Pineapple

pineapple sliced

To the Chinese people, the pineapple is considered an ultra-auspicious fruit, thanks to its bright orange color which signifies fortune. Plus the Hokkien name for pineapple (旺来) sounds like “fortune coming” when translated into Mandarin.

#4. Huat kueh 

huat kueh

You might have seen this traditional Chinese pastry on the roadside during the Chinese Seventh Month aka “Hungry Ghost Festival” or on ordinary days at the altar of some glitzy business and or private residential complex. And if you are a deity- and ancestor-fearing Chinese, you would have bought huat kuehs or “fa gao” (发糕) for praying. Traditionally these cakes are bought as offerings to the Chinese Gods in order to usher in peace, prosperity and luck for the upcoming Chinese New Year and Hungry Ghost Festival. Well, fa (发) literally means ‘huat’ in Hokkien.

Huat, ah!

#5. Pistachios 


Pistachios are happy snacks and snacking on them makes Jack or Jill a happy person. Haha!

Also known as kai xin guo “开心果” (happy nut), the pistachio nut has a smiley face and just looking at it makes you smile. Kai “开” means open, “心” is heart and “果” is fruit and or nut.

That is why the Chinese believe eating pistachios can bring one happiness and joy.

In Indian culture, pistachios are considered a symbol of health (pistachios are eaten during winter!), love and good wishes...because the nuts are always smiling.


Stay tuned for Part Two of this story! 

Eastie Brekkie

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