For adults who celebrate Chinese New Year, it's a time for seeing family and friends, tying up loose ends, and looking towards the year ahead. But for the younger generation (myself included), when the Chinese lunisolar year turns, there's only one thing on our minds: the Tray of Togetherness.
For those who haven't had the pleasure of fighting with their siblings over the last White Rabbit sweet, the Tray of Togetherness is a circular or octagonal-shaped platter, divided into either six or eight compartments. These compartments hold an array of symbolic candies, fruits, nuts, and coins.
"When visiting relatives, it's customary to bring a round or octagonal tray filled with a variety of treats," explains my auntie, Fun Lau, who dusts off her Tray of Togetherness every year without fail. "In the southern region of China and Hong Kong, the tray is known as chyuhn haap, which literally translates as 'year box' and represents peace and harmony."
The Tray of Togetherness has been a part of Chinese New Year celebrations for centuries.
"The candy trays were a popular treat in family gatherings from as far back as the Ming Dynasty in 1567," says Fan Zhang of Loon Fong, an Asian supermarket with branches across London. "Traditionally, the tray is made of wood or lacquer ware, and on the inside it's split up into six or eight interior compartments, because these are lucky Chinese numbers, to indicate fortune."
When friends and family visit at Chinese New Year, you offer them your blessings and the Tray of Togetherness.
"Each item in the tray has its own special symbolic meaning," adds my aunt. "The list of sweet treats varies between regions and personal preferences, but generally they all bring luck in their own strange ways."
If you pick melon seeds, for example, you'll be granted with wealth and happiness, while lotus root seeds mean you'll be blessed with many children. Candied melon indicates good health and growth, coconut brings happy friendships and unity, and nuts represent a long life with strong family ties.
Some Tray of Togetherness items are more popular than others.
"Those black melon seeds were really weird and the end reward for them wasn't even worth the hassle," remembers Asian food Instagrammer Kar-Shing Tong. "I remember cracking melon seeds using your front teeth and then using your tongue to try and scoop the tiny seed out. When I finally figured how to get those pesky seeds out, I felt like I'd finally become a man."
I have similar memories of questionable Tray of Togetherness sweets. I once spat an unpalatable candied substance back into the box and tried to cover it up before my parents realised.
Of course, the Tray of Togetherness is about more than just the sweets it contains. In some regions of China, the platters are brought out for marriages and other festivities, thanks to their ability to … well, bring people together.
"When you bring out the Tray of Togetherness, it brings people together and that's what I love most about it. There's so much emotion attached to it," says Tong. "Although from a culinary point of view, they're probably not the best. But it's like Christmas Day and not having a turkey—it's just wrong."
Despite the occasional dodgy candy, Trays of Togetherness are gaining popularity outside of East Asian communities.
"They're becoming more popular among both Chinese and Western customers," says Zhang. "We sell all kinds of traditional candy boxes at our supermarkets and we've found that people are much more open to other cultures and curious to learn how others celebrate festive periods."
It seems the Tray of Togetherness tradition won't be going away anytime soon. But as you ring in the Year of the Rooster, try and steer clear of the melon seeds.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2017.