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Yu Sheng - An Essential Element of Chinese New Year in Southeast Asia

Singapore and Malaysia's Unique Chinese New Year Culinary Tradition

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Yu sheng being tossed for Chinese New Year

Yu sheng being tossed for Chinese New Year

Photo courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board / Photographer: Nicholas Tang Yong Jing

The Cantonese Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore welcome Chinese New Year with a spectacularly festive tradition: communally tossing a raw-fish salad with their chopsticks and shouting good-luck wishes. The salad is known as yu sheng, and also goes by the names of yee sang or lo hei. The act of tossing a yu sheng is popularly believed to bring luck to participants - and the higher you toss the ingredients, the more luck you're believed to bring in!

Yu sheng is a raw fish salad, and is usually composed of the following ingredients: raw fish, sliced into thin pieces; shredded vegetables, pickled or fresh; bits of pomelo or candied citrus peel; chopped nuts; spices; and sauce - plum sauce and hoisin sauce.

Other ingredients vary from establishment to establishment, but the yu sheng is usually served with separated ingredients and a pre-measured, pre-mixed sauce blend.

Ancient Origins of Yu Sheng

Yu sheng in its modern form is mainly a Southeast Asia creation (Malaysia and Singapore are currently fighting for recognition as the birthplace of yu sheng as it is known today), and the dish has not become as popular a Chinese New Year dish elsewhere in the world.

The roots of the dish, though, extend all the way back to ancient China, particularly Guangdong province, the homeland of the Cantonese and Teochew Chinese who emigrated to Malaysia and Singapore. The Cantonese people ate a similar raw-fish dish on the 7th day of the Chinese New Year. As the overseas Chinese began developing their own Chinese New Year traditions, yu sheng began to take on a larger significance in the festivities.

The Birth of Modern Yu Sheng

The modern yu sheng served in Malaysian and Singaporean restaurants today trace their descent from a group of chefs known as the "four heavenly kings" - a foursome that trained together under a Hong Kong master chef and stayed friends even as they later opened their own restaurants around Singapore. During one get-together, the friends contemplated the coming Chinese New Year: what could they do to increase sales on this auspicious holiday?

Eventually, the four hit on the Cantonese raw-fish dish, and added their own innovations. According to Singapore food blogger Leslie Tay MD, the four heavenly kings decided to serve pre-sliced fish and pre-mixed sauces. "The standardization of the sauce was very important," Dr. Tay explains. "In the past, the dish would have been served with vinegar, sugar and sesame oil which the customers would have to mix it themselves. By pre-mixing the sauce and carefully portioning it with the salad, they managed to create a dish which is consistently reproduced each time it was served." (source)

The four chefs launched yu sheng simultaneously in their restaurants immediately afterward; over the next few years, the salad and the rituals surrounding it spread around the peninsula, becoming the Chinese New Year tradition it is today.

The Yu Sheng Tradition

The four heavenly kings had nothing to do with the present tradition attached to yu sheng; the mixing ritual and the associated phrases evolved organically down the years.

The end result is a dish rich in meaning; the Chinese communities in Malaysia and Singapore attach deep significance to every ingredient and every step of the mixing process, underscored by the luck-invoking phrases uttered when particular ingredients are added and mixed.

The Chinese phrase for "raw fish" homophonically resembles the Chinese phrase for "rising abundance", thus the use of raw fish represents a wish for more wealth in the coming year. Dough fritters, on the other hand, stand in for "gold" due to their appearance. And so with the rest of the ingredients - peanuts, plum sauce, pomelo, and oil all represent a particular wish for prosperity in the year ahead. (Source)

Each of these ingredients is added to a large bowl, one at a time, while luck-invoking Chinese phrases are recited over the food. The assembled diners then use their chopsticks to toss the salad, throwing the ingredients high in the air while shouting "lo hei!" ("Toss luck!")

Yu sheng is traditionally eaten on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, though the tradition has evolved to accommodate having yu sheng on any day of the holiday.

Where to Eat Yu Sheng

You don't have to be Chinese to enjoy a yu sheng on Chinese New Year. Most Chinese restaurants in Singapore and Malaysia offer yu sheng packages for groups; even hawker centers in Singapore sell yu sheng! However, eating yu sheng alone or for two just isn't done: you need a large group of family or loved ones to really get the yu sheng spirit right.

To experience yu sheng the way the region's Chinese communities do, visit Penang, where the local Chinese go all-out on their Chinese New Year food; or try the fancier restaurants in Singapore - yu sheng is very well-represented in the New Year specials at Marina Bay Sands.

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