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How to eat yusheng

By Ling Lee
31 January 2013 4:52 PM Updated Wednesday at 12:41pm

How to eat yusheng

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 raw fish slices and julienned vegetables of different colours.

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 true story of 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. 

Where should you lo hei this season? Take a look at: Chinese New Year meals 2015



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.

"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" (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”.

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

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

5. Crisp crackers, pok chui in Cantonese, are often added with crisped fish skin to the salad these days, symbolising "偏地黄金" (pian di huang jin). It means to let the floor be scattered with these pillow-shaped "gold" (huang jin).

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


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

What makes a good yusheng

With most of the ingredients in yusheng are raw, and chef Lim Chong Kai of Yan Ting tells HungryGoWhere that “the most important element to a good yusheng is the freshness of its ingredients”.

While the basics are similar, the variations are endless: any raw seafood may represent yu (fish), 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 give the dish a luxe factor.

At Cherry Garden, executive Chinese cuisine chef Cheng Hon Chau also stresses on using the freshest ingredients for yusheng. He said: “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 fruits such as mango and kiwi to its yusheng featuring lobster and salmon slices.

For something different, try the hamachi yusheng 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 revealed that he has also “formulated a secret sweet sauce to represent symbolise 'a sweet time'”.


Where should you lo hei this season? Take a look at: Chinese New Year meals 2015


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