Chinese New Year Candy Box: How we assemble our Tray of Togetherness

Blessings for the sweet life represented in snack form for the Lunar New Year.

Blessings for the sweet life represented in snack form for the Lunar New Year.

(Illustration: Flo Leung)

Growing up in a Chinese-Canadian household, I always knew that Chinese New Year was on its way when our dining table filled up with big bowls of "fancy" Mandarin oranges with glossy leaves and extra long stems intact, and a large lacquered candy box was brought out and filled to the brim — The Tray of Togetherness.

The Tray of Togetherness is a platter of sweets families traditionally use to welcome visiting guests around the Lunar New Year. Each tray or box usually has 6 or 8 compartments (the number six symbolizing luck, and eight, fortune) filled with symbolic edible items. The tray, usually round or octagonal, holds the separate compartments snugly, and the food within symbolizes all the luck, happiness and good fortune wished upon family and friends for the upcoming New Year.

It wasn't until I was a little older (and a bit more curious as to the reasoning behind the seasonal influx of usually off-limit sweets), that I discovered just how much Chinese traditions seem to adore word play! They often combine idioms and homonyms with a dash of a visual pun thrown in for good measure. For example, the Cantonese word for Mandarin oranges, gum, sounds similar to the word for gold; their rich orange colour helps visually represent the cultural fascination with pure gold – we're talking 99.99% here! The phrase "pair of Mandarins", in turn, sounds similar to "bringing riches or prosperity" – thus the tradition of offering two Mandarin oranges (with full, long stems and lively leaves, signifying health and longevity) when visiting family members during the New Year.

Our own family candy tray is made up of mostly traditional items, with a few personal favourite touches we've adopted over the years. In our now growing family, with marriages bringing in-laws and a new generation of curious little ones around, assembling a Tray of Togetherness has now become a (pleasantly delicious) family tradition that starts conversation (and snacking) about our family's wishes for the future year.

Here's what we put in our Tray of Togetherness – I hope these suggestions will inspire you to create your very own version.

    

Red Watermelon Seeds

(Illustration: Flo Leung)

This is one of the more traditional items; we usually place these brightly-dyed, lucky-red seeds in the center of the tray. The word for "seed" and "son" (or "offspring") contain the same Chinese character, so including these in the candy box symbolizes fertility. I have to admit, that while I'm all-in for the symbolic nature of these seeds, I've never really enjoyed eating them, so this one's a pure nod to tradition for me!

     

Lucky Red Candy & Sweets

(Illustration: Flo Leung)

The red and gold foil crinkly wrapper! So lucky. The strawberry bubblegum perfume scent! So very, very sweet. This, I imagine, is like the Cantonese version of the English Werther's hard caramel candies; images of elderly relatives come to mind, magically pulling out handfuls of these shiny candies from random lint-lined pocket during visits.

White Rabbit milk candies are a personal favourite treat of my mother's; they were one of the very few sweets that she and her two siblings were allowed to eat growing up, and the edible rice paper inner candy wrapper made the experience of slowly savouring them even more enjoyable.

Including a few of your favourite candies in your tray will symbolize a sweet beginning to the New Year, as well as wish your family a pleasant and enjoyable time ("the sweet life") over the next year.

     

Gold Chocolate Coins

(Illustration: Flo Leung)

We're rich, baby! These symbols of good fortune are always represented in full force in our tray. If you're feeling extra luxe, as we sometimes do, place a generous handful of the gold chocolates in little coin purses near your Mandarin orange display – it's like having a Bring On the Riches Auspicious Still Life of your very own.

     

Pistachios & Cashews

(Illustration: Flo Leung)

The Cantonese name for pistachio is "happy fruit". Good thing we love snacking on them, we're clearly bound for a very happy new year! We've also included salted cashews into the mix recently – apparently the shape of the cashew resembles a gold ingot used as ancient Chinese currency. If I can become happy and rich by eating snacking on pistachios and cashews, I'm definitely all for it.

    

Candied Winter Melon

(Illustration: Flo Leung)

There's a saying about this treat that translates to "good head, good tail" – meaning a good beginning and a good end to the year. Another related interpretation of the saying offers wishes for good health and growth (from your head to your toes). I've always liked these – slightly crunchy and crystallized on the outside with a very mild, slightly juicy interior.

     

Candied Lotus Root

(Illustration: Flo Leung)

The Cantonese name for lotus root, leen ngau, sounds like the words "having every year". Eating lotus root symbolizes abundance, year after year. As a visual aside, isn't Mother Nature beautiful?

    

Candied Coconut

(Illustration: Flo Leung)

The coconut's symbolic meaning is togetherness and strong family ties. The Cantonese name for coconut, ye zi, sounds similar to the words grandfather and grandson. The wish behind eating this treat is to promote unity through a strong lineage (across generations, from grandfather to grandson).

    

Dried Kumquats

(Illustration: Flo Leung)

This is like the double down item of the candy box. The name for kumquat translates to "gold orange" (and we all know how lucky oranges are during New Year), so eating these little treats are extra precious riches on top of good fortune. And really, these are delicious, so I make sure to grab a few extra to top up my luck.

And there you have it, blessings for the sweet life represented in snack form. From my family to yours, we wish you a very happy Lunar New Year, full of happiness and good fortune. May your pockets always be full of candy!


Flo Leung is a Toronto illustrator and noodle lover. You can find her work at hungryeyesstudio.com and @hungryeyesstudio.