During Chinese New Year, fish is one of the most widely eaten food. The word Fish (鱼/ yú) has the same pronunciation (余/yú) as in the Chinese idiom (年年有余 nián nián yǒu yú) which means having surplus all year round. It is one of the popular auspicious blessings during Chinese New Year
During Chinese New Year, one of the most coveted fish, especially among the Teochew community is the Rabbit fish, also known as Pek Tor Her (白肚鱼 or white belly fish). Other names that it goes by includes Bai Nian Yu (拜年鱼 or Chinese New Year fish) & Fa Cai Yu (发财鱼 or Prosperous Fish). Thus, it is common to serve Rabbit fish during reunion dinner to wish loved ones prosperity and to live in abundance. There will often be some leftover fish to symbolise surplus that matches the idiom
The rabbit fish is a common fish found in the warm tropical waters of Indo-Pacific. It is. commonly eaten all year round in Philippines, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh to India. It is also known as Spinefoot because of its stiff, sharp dorsal and pelvic spines which can give you a painful sting. The adult Rabbit fish typically measures 6 to 8 inches.
The rabbit fish spawning season peaks from Jan to Feb every year which overlaps with Chinese New Year. During the spawning season, the bellies of female Rabbit fish are filled with roe (eggs) & the male fish belly filled with milt (semen). During the spawning season the rabbit fish are bigger, fuller. The belly tastes sweet instead of bitter. The fish roe and milt are creamy and rich like soft smooth custard. The roe have a subtle eggy taste while the milt tastes like milk.
The Teochew people consider eating roe and milt laden rabbit fish auspicious and will bring them good luck and prosperity. According to urban legend, this practise started after a businessman in Singapore ate rabbit fish with roe and milt, and became very wealthy.
Teochew people usually cook rabbit fish by steaming with Hua Diao Jiu
(花雕酒 / a Chinese cooking wine) and julienned ginger. When served, the fish is eaten with a dipping sauce made by blending light soy sauce, sesame oil, chopped garlic, chopped chili, freshly squeezed lime juice, etc. Rabbit fish is also cooked by dunking / poaching in boiling stock. Fresh rabbit fish meat is white, tender, moist and sweet. The delicate meat comes off the bone easily. At the belly area, it can taste slightly bitter.
These days, other Chinese communities have also adopted this Teochew tradition, so demand for rabbit fish peaks around Chinese New Year and the price shoots up to as much as 10 times its everyday price. The fishes I had cost 6 fish for $48.