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The anatomy of yu sheng

by Ling Lee

inSing.com - 31 January 2013 4:52 PM | Updated 14 Jan 2014

The anatomy of yu sheng

The anatomy of yu sheng | Illustration: Savid Gan

Yu sheng has become an integral part of Chinese New Year meals. These days, it typically features plum sauce, oils and other condiments to season the raw fish slices and julienned vegetables of different colours.

Some people imagine that yu sheng must have originated from Hong Kong – why else would so many know it by its Cantonese term ‘yee sang’, and call the ceremonious toss of its colourful ingredients ‘lo hei’ (Cantonese for “rise 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 actually found it appetising. 

 

The true story of yu sheng

Yu sheng was created by the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantonese cuisine in Singapore in the ’60s – 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, yu sheng is meant to be enjoyed on ren ri, the seventh day of the Lunar New Year, in celebration of the day mankind was created, though many now consume yu sheng throughout the festive season. 
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Where should you 'lo hei' this season?, Take a look at: Chinese New Year meals 2014

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Yu sheng rituals and symbolism

Yummy factors aside, this dish remains popular today largely because of the auspicious meanings associated with its ingredients. Waitstaff at restaurants recite well wishes in the form of Chinese idioms linked to each ingredient as they prepare the dish at the table.

"This is why we compete tossing the ingredients to the greatest height we can reach – the higher you toss, the better your luck."

Here are the general steps:

1. A year of abundance is wished upon the diners with the phrase "年年有余" (pronounced "nian nian you yu"). “Yu” sounds like the Mandarin character for “fish”, so the raw fish slices symbolise excess.

2. Pieces of fresh pomelo are added to symbolise "大吉大利" (pronounced "da ji da li") – Mandarin for “good luck and smooth-sailing times ahead.”

3. Oil is then drizzled in circles for manifold wealth. The sayings to accompany this are "一本万利" (pronounced "yi ben wan li") and "财源广进" (pronounced "cai yuan guang jing").

4. Strips of carrot are included to indicate good luck, mainly for its colour. "红运当头" (pronounced "hong yun dang tou") is the accompanying saying in which "hong" stands for the auspicious colour red. In this case, variants of red.

5. Crisp crackers, pok chui, which are often added with crisped fish skin these days, symbolise "偏地黄金" (pronounced "pian di huang jin") – the letting of the floor be scattered with these pillow-shaped "gold" ("huang jin").

After all the ingredients are pour in – including the seasonings in the pink and green packets – everyone at the table is invited to toss the dish to the sayings "风生水起" (pronounced "feng sheng shui qi"; means "quick progress") and "歩歩高升" (pronounced "bu bu gao sheng"; means “to keep rising in the ranks”). This is why we compete tossing the ingredients to the greatest height we can reach – the higher you toss, the better your luck.

 

Yan Ting's Prosperity yu sheng with snow pear, abalone and salmon
Yan Ting's Prosperity yu sheng with snow pear, abalone
and salmon | Photo: Celine Asril

What makes a good yu sheng

With most of the yu sheng’s ingredients being raw, chef Lim Chong Kai of Yan Ting tells us that “the most important element to a good yu sheng is the freshness of its ingredients”.

While the basics are similar, the variations are endless: any raw seafood can represent “yu”, although mackerel was commonly used in the past. This year at Yan Ting, the white radish is replaced by snow pear, while slices of abalone and salmon make the dish extra luxe.

At Cherry Garden, executive Chinese cuisine chef Cheng Hon Chau also stresses on using the freshest ingredients for yu sheng. He says, “We do not use any marinated or pickled vegetables. Sliced fresh vegetables are added to premium seafood such geoduck clam, lobster, surf clam and abalone, which all combine to the natural, wholesome taste.”

Nutrition is the theme at Peach Blossoms, with the addition of fruit such as mango and kiwi to its yu sheng of lobster and salmon slices.

For something different, try the hamachi yu sheng at Min Jiang and Min Jiang at One-North (dine-in only), which has brightly coloured flying fish roe and wasabi prawn roe to add extra flavours to the buttery texture of the hamachi, or yellowtail, while the vegetables are made up of sweet mesclun greens. Min Jiang’s master chef Chan Hwan Kee reveals that he has also “formulated a secret sweet sauce to represent "甜甜蜜蜜" (pronounced "tian tian mi mi"), meaning a sweet time”.


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Where should you 'lo hei' this season?, Take a look at: Chinese New Year meals 2014

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