Looking to have a sweet year? The small, tart golden fruits of the cumquat tree are one way to ring in a year of luck and abundance.
In the lead up to the festivities of Lunar New Year, the cumquat – or kumquat - is being bought, sold, gifted and, most deliciously, candied all around the world, including China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong,Macau, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mauritius, the Philippines and, of course, Australia.
One of the biggest celebrations of Chinese New Year in Australia happens at the Chinese Museum, in Melbourne. Michelle Tseng, marketing and events coordinator, explains that food is one of the most important parts of the celebration.
“Feasting at New Year is really important. It shows that you’ve grown more prosperous during the year that’s just gone by, which is a really big thing in Chinese culture,” she says. Indeed, many of the foods eaten at New Year are eaten to signify prosperity and wealth for the year ahead, like cumquats. A staple of Chinese cooking, these tart citrus fruits are preserved during New Year festivities and eaten as sweets. “It’s not good to eat anything sour at New Year,” says Tseng. “You don’t want to be consuming sourness, you know? So we candy the cumquats with sugar, and make them sweet. You want to have a sweet year, not a sour one!” What’s more, the Chinese word for cumquat is also used for gold, and it sounds similar to the word for happiness.
This symbolism is everywhere at Chinese New Year. Whole fish is served, for instance, to represent unity. “You have to have leftovers of the fish,” says Tseng. “This means you’ll have an overflow of money for the year to come.” The Chinese character for fish is a homonym for the character for “prosperity.” Similarly, whole chicken is served (with the head and feet still attached) to show togetherness.
Dumplings, a mainstay of Chinese cuisine, are traditionally prepared on New Year’s Eve and eaten at midnight. “The word for dumpling (Jiǎozi) sounds very much like the phrase ‘the exchange of midnight’ (Jiāo zi),” says Tseng. “And even better, dumplings are shaped like gold ingots - all the better for eating at New Year, when we want to be wealthier!” The legend goes that, the more dumplings you can eat on New Year’s Eve, the wealthier you’ll be in the year to come. Permission to unbutton your pants, granted.
Other citrus fruit, including tangerines and oranges, are also popular among communities that celebrate the Lunar New Year.
As for sweets, there’s sticky cake, or nian gao, popular as it signifies “sticking together”, and of course candied cumquats. Which can take on many forms:
In Vietnam, concerns about pesticides have hurt the long-standing tradition of enjoying candied cumquats during Tet – the Vietnamese New Year festival - but many Vietnamese families will buy a cumquat tree to mark the New Year, and candied fruit is still a popular treat, along with other sweet snacks.
Who doesn’t adore the idea of a game bird for Christmas? In the absence of a goose (which would be ideal), a large free-range duck, such as a muscovy, has a sense of theatre and a great taste to go with it. They’re also easier to source. I’ve used brandied cumquats here, but if you can’t find them, use sliced cumquats or a similar citrus (if using sweet oranges, use mostly the rind) and some brandy straight from the bottle for the marinade.
Filipino food is heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, yet all Filos consider arroz caldo part of the national food culture. The cumquats in this version add a new dimension to a delicately flavoured dish.