Violet Oon dons many impressive hats — she is an iconic chef and restaurateur, a food critic and writer, cookbook author and presenter, and Singapore's official food ambassador since 1988. During the Lunar New Year, however, cooking for and hosting family and friends at home takes precedence, and Violet spends days preparing for the season.
We had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with her in her kitchen, where she regaled us with Lunar New Year memories and traditions. The one she looks forward to the most is time spent with her growing family of grandchildren.
"Being Peranakan, it is very moving to have my children and grandchildren carry on our traditional Chinese greeting where they kneel on the floor in homage to the elders and wish me Panjang Panjang Umor. This translates to "May you have a long life." This act of soja, which means to pay homage, is something I did for my grandmother in her home when I was a child in the 1950s. It was also the first greeting of the New Year to my parents."
Lunar New Year is always a time of family get-togethers where Violet shares her language of love — food.
To me, food is the language of love for family and friends. My Lunar New Year dishes represent both my Peranakan heritage and the Hokkien heritage of my late mother-in-law. In the past, my mother would feed my father and me 2 dishes — Babi Pong Tay and Chicken Curry, both eaten with chunks of French bread — before sending us off for New Year visits to my grandmother and older relatives.
These years, my reunion meal menu has grown to include more dishes like a delicious Cantonese Braised Pork with Oysters and Fa Cai, Crabmeat Omelette with Lettuce, Laughing Prawns, and more.
Violet ushers in good fortune for the year ahead with family-favourite dishes rich in flavour and symbolism.
Lucky meanings behind each Lunar New Year dish come from their homonyms. For example, I love eating the Crabmeat Omelette with a lettuce leaf because the word 'lettuce' in Mandarin sounds like ‘grow money’. Dried oysters symbolise good tidings, and mandarin oranges are a must-have because they sound like ‘gold’, which signifies all that is good and golden.
Violet bringing her favourite almond cookies to the table. Full and round, almond cookies symbolise the completeness and continuation of life, and a bright future ahead.
My fondest memories have always been the preparation days where we spring clean, and complete all cooking before the midnight of Lunar New Year as it was taboo to touch knife to food on the first day of Lunar New Year. On the first day, we also never did any sweeping as it represented sweeping away the good luck. These rituals are still very meaningful to me.
Violet recently adopted a new practice of giving Book Ang Pows, book gifts wrapped in vermilion red paper and topped with a red packet for prosperity. (Image credits: @violet.oon)
Last year, I hit upon an idea of giving Book Ang Pows to my grandchildren and close unmarried friends, because what is a greater gift than the gift of knowledge and the excitement of discovering an exciting story? This is a new tradition that I’ll continue this year.
Normally, red and yellow/gold dominate my table setting, but this year I’ve created a different look for my auspicious Lunar New Year table with KRA Sanctuary’s handmade ceramics and gold cutlery. Since lush orchids are my go-to flowers, I’ve also included them in the styling as the pinks, purples, and whites of the orchids pair perfectly for my table of celebration and joy.