When I was growing up, my grandmother had a strict no-snacking-before-dinner rule, but there was one exception: Chinese New Year. Once a year, she'd put out her Chinese candy box on the coffee table for a few weeks, and my sister and I would giddily attack its contents every time we were at her house and fight over the popular candy flavors.
This is one of my favorite Chinese traditions, so I decided to make my own candy box this year and start sharing it with my daughter. Here's the significance behind it and how to make your own!
What Is a Chinese Candy Box?
A Chinese candy box is a plastic or lacquerware container that usually contains six or eight compartments, as those are Chinese lucky numbers. The boxes tend to be red with gold or black motifs on them, since red symbolizes joy and good luck. Each compartment is filled with a different snack, with dried seeds and candied nuts and fruits being popular choices.
During the 15 days the new year is celebrated, it's customary to go and visit family and friends to chat and catch up. Each house displays its own candy box, and it's a festive way to have snacks at the ready for the constant influx of guests. All that's needed to entertain is to brew some tea when people arrive!
Where to Buy the Box
Putting your own candy box together is really quite simple and just a matter of shopping. First up is the box itself: If you plan on using it for many years, buy a sturdy one with a lid that's made of thick plastic, or invest in real lacquerware for something truly beautiful. These can be found online or in Chinatown or local Asian grocery stores, and don't come with any food inside.
Some Chinese grocery stores sell convenient pre-filled candy boxes too. These range in size and are flimsy in construction, really only destined to be used for one holiday season. Some might not even come with lids, so you'd probably think twice about leaving them out for a long period of time. The nice thing about these, however, is that they're not that expensive, come with snacks inside, and you don't have to worry about storing the box the rest of the year. The downside is that they're not as visually appealing, and if you plan on having a lot of guests, you'll still have to buy extra snacks to refill the compartments.
How to Fill the Box
If you buy a box that you fill yourself, then comes the fun part: picking the snacks. My mom informed me that the only must-have is dried seeds, usually melon, to symbolize fertility. For optimal good luck, find seeds dyed red! As long as you have the seeds, you can fill the other compartments with whatever else you'd like.
Other traditional snack items are: sweetened dried coconut, fried sesame balls, candied carrot slices, sweetened dried coconut pieces, and sweetened dried lotus root slices or seeds, among others. All of them are thought of as good luck foods that help with family harmony, wealth, or prosperity in business. More modern additions are gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins, fruit jelly candies, or hard candies wrapped in shiny red foil. Have fun picking, and aim for a variety of textures and flavors.
If you plan on having lots of visitors, make sure you pick up enough of each snack to refill the tray. But if you want just a little bit of each one, it pays to seek out smaller packages, which may be down other aisles and not with the big Chinese New Year displays that are usually toward the front of the store. The cost for getting six to eight items adds up quickly!
Displaying Your Chinese Candy Box
Once filled, display the candy box in a highly visible place near where guests are seated, usually the coffee table. It's customary to put a few Mandarin oranges with stems on the box too, and don't forget to have some cocktail napkins close by — especially if guests will be snacking on the seeds.
Enjoy your festive creation and create some fond memories around them! My sister and I loved watching our children's eyes light up as they got to have their first rice-paper wrapped fruit candy, and I inwardly smile every time I walk past the beautiful red tray during Chinese New Year.
Have you ever made your own candy box?