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TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - There was something for everyone in Taiwan as the island stocked up on festive foods for its most sacred annual holiday, the Chinese Lunar New Year, spending as usual despite an economic downturn.
With the Year of the Ox due to start on Monday, families bought rice cake balls coated in nuts or sesame seeds to eat at home after praying.
They packed bags with candy, including chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, a symbol of luck, and milk-and-peanut nougats to offer to holiday visitors.
For VIP guests and family, there are dried, processed snakehead fish slices that sell for the relatively high holiday food price of T$400 ($11.90) a piece.
"Sales aren't bad this year," said fish seller Wang You-fu, bragging about a good haul due to cold weather. "For these fish, the colder the better."
Children, off school and at home watching TV, will demand gummy, spicy red and orange fish-flavored chips.
And to celebrate unity, entire families bought the fixings for seafood hot pots, which they might top off with radish-flavored sticky rice cake, with the "sticky" in Mandarin rhyming with "year."
Thousands crammed into public markets in Taipei on Friday to buy these specialty holiday foods, most of which are eaten on Lunar New Year because of their seasonality, ahead of the week-long traditional holiday.
Shoppers also grabbed up oranges for the holiday at unusually low prices on a market glut, a Taiwan agricultural official said.
Customers too busy for the public market scored T$200-T$300 convenience stores gift boxes with popular snacks such as crackers and dried beef.
Honoring other popular animals ahead of this Ox year, convenience stores sold giant panda-shaped cookies ahead of the Taipei zoo's January 26 public display of a pair of pandas from China and gold colored Hello Kitty-themed pudding cartons.
Crowds were off slightly at markets and shops because of Taiwan's moribund economy driven by plummeting export orders, but most sellers said income was steady as shoppers used their T$3,600 vouchers awarded to each citizen by the government last week to stoke spending.
Taiwan's December export orders fell by a record 33 percent from a year earlier on sharp declines in demand from China and Europe, data showed on Friday.
"Sales are very stable, and after New Year we'll be able to see that more clearly," said 7-Eleven publicist Lin Chia-chen.
But vendors too no chances, going all out to snare shoppers.
"This year I saw fewer people, but I saw more festive decorations and more prizes being given out," noted Tim Kuo, 40, of Taipei, who filled shopping bags with thousands of others at Taipei's famous Dihua Street open-air market.
Editing by Miral Fahmy