Writer Jo-ann Huang investigates a Lunar New Year tradition specific to Southeast Asia that has confounded her for over a decade
At Chinese New Year, few dishes are as divisive as Yu Sheng. Do you revel in the ritual, tossing veggies as high as you can? Or do you have to be dragged kicking and screaming by your elders, rolling your eyes at how silly and superstitious it seems?
Perhaps it’s less the ritual than the actual dish itself. While Chinese New Year favourites such as roast pork or pineapple tarts involve lots of preparation time – not to mention years of practice to refine – to me Yu Sheng is a glorified Asian salad with slivers of raw fish and squirts of plum sauce that is shoved upon us Chinese folks by enterprising restaurants looking to cash in on the festivities.
My first experience with Yu Sheng was more than a decade ago. The fish wasn’t quite fresh, and I ended up with a bad bout of diarrhoea. That could explain my contempt towards it. Of course, the S$48 bill for a simple dish of vegetables and fish didn’t help.
But one thing we can all agree on is that Yu Sheng has become an essential part of Chinese New Year reunion dinners, as friends and relatives participate in the “lo hei” experience, which literally translates as “tossing for luck” in Cantonese. In this case, it is the tossing of the Yu Sheng up in the air.
Just as important is reciting lucky phrases in Mandarin while preparing Yu Sheng in order to usher in a year of good health and prosperity. After the dish has been neatly laid out, everyone proceeds to make a mess of shredded vegetables and fish slices. Thank goodness it happens just once a year.
Despite my bias towards the dish, it has become a well-loved staple in Chinese New Year celebrations. To its fans, it’s a fun dish that brings us together – and yet another excuse to feast.
Yu Sheng’s roots (and a food fight)
While Yu Sheng was purportedly first eaten by the Cantonese, today it’s found only among the ethnic Chinese in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Its origins are unclear, but the first mention of consuming raw fish goes back to ancient Chinese dynasties. It notes that fishermen living in Guangzhou, a coastal province in southern China, were eating thin slices of raw carp to celebrate Renri, the seventh day of Chinese New Year. The dish, called kuai (脍), was a humble combination of raw herring, soy sauce, vinegar, peanut oil, pickled shallots and shredded vegetables.
At some point, it became Yu Sheng, with a twist on the homonyms “yu”, which can mean both fish (鱼) and abundance (余), and “sheng”, which can mean raw, or life (生). So Yu Sheng means “raw fish” or “abundance of life”.
Immigrants of Canton and Teochew descent brought it to Malaya, and as the region’s economy prospered so did the ingredients used. But who and which nation really owns Yu Sheng, or can lay claim to creating it, is a topic that is hotly contested.
Yu Sheng is said to have been modernised into its current form by four master chefs in Singapore – dubbed by the media as the “Four Heavenly Kings” – in 1964.
Of the four chefs, Tham Yui Kai and Lau Yoke Pui were famous as founders of Red Star Restaurant, one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Singapore and a popular haunt for lovers of Cantonese cuisine.
The chefs were said to have added condiments to spice it up and gave it some colour to make it a more festive offering. Wolf herring and mackerel were previously used, which soon gave way to more expensive and popular variants like raw salmon.
But the book A Toss of Yee Sang claims otherwise. It says a chef named Loke Ching Fatt, a Chinese immigrant who came to Seremban, in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, came up with Yu Sheng as a last-ditch effort to save his failing restaurant.
Regardless of its origins, Yu Sheng continues to evolve, with modern chefs coming up with their own unique takes on the classic version. Where raw salmon is the traditional go-to for the seafood component, some high-end Chinese restaurants now offer luxurious ingredients such as lobster, raw pufferfish and abalone in place of salmon.
Thai restaurants are known to add fish sauce into the sauce mix. While a typical Yu Sheng features shredded veggies like carrot, radish and turnip, some add fruit, such as dragonfruit and mango, to give the dish an exotic feel, or perhaps as a complement to its overall sweet and sour flavour.
What the heck do those phrases mean?
Whether you are already familiar with Yu Sheng or a newbie at it, perhaps the most complex part of the dish is reciting those Chinese phrases while the ingredients are being laid out. The phrases are meant to channel good luck and fortune for the year, so if it is your first time hosting Yu Sheng, you should get the sayings right or someone is going to lose the lottery.
There are 12 steps during the preparation so some practice is needed to lay out the ingredients and recite the phrases in the correct order.
The phrases are a mystery to most folks and the chefs who created the dish apparently didn’t come up the sayings. Rather, they were coined by diners who wanted to make the occasion more festive and, hopefully, one that brings great fortune, too.
Here are all of the steps in their symbolic glory.
Place Yu Sheng on the table as diners congregate.
Say: 恭喜发财 (Gong Xi Fa Cai), which means “Congratulations for your wealth”;
万事如意 (Wan Shi Ru Yi), which means “May all your wishes come true”.
Add raw fish, which symbolises great abundance through the year.
Say: 年年有余 (Nian Nian You Yu), which means, “May you have abundance each year”, with “Yu”, also the Mandarin word for fish, sounding like abundance.
Add pomelo and lime.
Say: 大吉大利 (Da Ji Da Li), which translates to “good luck and great prosperity”.
Add spices, which symbolise fortune and prosperity.
Say: 招财进宝 (Zhao Cai Jin Bao), which means, “May you prosper and be blessed with treasures”.
Pour oil and plum sauce over ingredients. This symbolises an increase in profits and multiple streams of money.
Say: 本万利 (Yi Ben Wan Li), which means, “Increase your profit by 10,000 times”;
财源广进 (Cai Yuan Guang Jin), which means, “May you have many sources of wealth”.
Add shredded carrot, which symbolises good luck, as the first character of carrot (鸿) sounds like the Mandarin word for red.
Say: 鸿运当头 (Hong Yun Dang Tou), which translates to “Good luck is approaching”.
Add green radish, which symbolises eternal youth as the first character (青) also sounds like the Chinese word for green.
Say: 青春常驻 (Qing Chun Chang Zhu), which means, “Forever young”.
Add white radish.
Say: 风生水起 (Feng Sheng Shui Qi), which means, “Progress quickly;
步步高升 (Bu Bu Gao Sheng) which means, “Rise higher with each step”.
Pour chopped peanuts.
Say: 金银满屋 (Jin Yin Man Wu), which means, “May your home be full of gold and silver”.
Sprinkle sesame seeds.
Say: 生意兴隆 (Sheng Yi Xing Long), which means, “May your business prosper”.
Add deep-fried flour crisps.
Say: 满地黄金 (Man Di Huang Jin), which literally means, “May your floor be full of gold”.
Diners stand up and toss the ingredients into the air while saying their wishes out loud. They could also say “Lo hei, Lo hei!”, which is Cantonese for “tossing for luck”.
Don’t forget that the higher you toss the Yu Sheng, the better your luck will be for the year ahead. So go ahead and bring a pair of extra chopsticks and whip it up as much as you can – your fate for this year depends on it!