The anatomy of yusheng | Illustration: Savid Gan
Yusheng has become an integral part of Chinese New Year meals. These days, it typically features plum sauce, oils and other condiments to season the julienned vegetables of different colours. Often served with slices of raw fish, this year, there's been a rise in popularity of non raw fish options.
Some people imagine that yusheng (raw fish salad) must have originated from Hong Kong – why else would so many know it by its Cantonese term, yoo sang, and call the ceremonious toss of its colourful ingredients, lo hei (Cantonese for “toss your way up”)?
There is also a myth that claims it was a young couple in ancient China who discovered the first version of the dish: they were stranded in a temple due to bad weather after having gone fishing. While waiting, they chanced upon a bottle of vinegar and decided to pour it over the raw fish to consume it, and they found it appetising.
The story behind yusheng
Yusheng was created by the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantonese cuisine in Singapore in the 1960s. Chefs Lau Yeok Pui, Tham Yui Kai, Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai first developed the idea of a raw fish dish that was common in Malaysia into this festive must-have here. Lai Wah Restaurant, helmed by Lau and Tham, claims to be the first in the world to have served it.
In that tradition, yusheng is meant to be enjoyed on ren ri, the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, in celebration of the day mankind was created, though many now consume yusheng throughout the festive season.
Yusheng rituals and symbolism
Yummy factors aside, this dish remains popular today largely because of the auspicious meanings associated with its ingredients.
Service crew at restaurants recite well wishes in the form of Chinese idioms linked to each ingredient as they prepare the dish at the table. Each restaurant apply their own tweaks to the sayings, and the order of the sayings.
Here is a video of how Cherry Garden staff serve yusheng:
1. A year of abundance is wished upon the diners with the phrase "年年有余" (nian nian you yu). Yu sounds like the Chinese character for “fish”, so the raw fish slices symbolise excess.
2. Pieces of fresh pomelo are added to symbolise "大吉大利" (da ji da li) – Mandarin for “good luck and smooth-sailing times ahead”.