I’ve eaten Yu Sheng so many times in my life but I didn’t really know the significance of this Chinese New Year traditions and how it comes about. In this article, we will explore the origins of this tradition and how it should be done traditionally.
What is Yu Sheng?
Yu Sheng refers to the Cantonese-style raw fish salad. In English, we call this the prosperity toss.
It is a dish which we, Chinese Singaporeans, often eat just before or during Chinese New Year. The term ‘Lo Hei’ (捞起) is a Cantonese term which literally means picked up. Figuratively, it means to ‘toss up a good fortune’. That’s before we actually used our pair of chopsticks to pick up the ingredients and toss them up into the air in order to mix it.
Why this dish will bring you luck?
In Mandarin, we refer to this dish as Yu Sheng (魚生) or raw fish. The Chinese word ‘Yu’ (魚), which means fish, sounds like another word ‘Yu’ (余) which translates to abundance. And the word, ‘sheng’ (生) sounds like the word ‘sheng’ (升) that means raise or increase. And when you place both characters together (余升), it means an increase in abundance. As such, we Chinese believe that this dish would bring about prosperity and abundance across all areas of our lives.
How it all started?
The practice of eating raw fish slices has started all the way since ancient times in China. Since then, this dish has evolved over the years which resulted in many various versions of Yu Sheng.
The type of Yu Sheng eaten in Singapore is called Qi Cai Yu Sheng (七彩鱼生) or ‘7-colour raw fish salad. Others call it the Chinese New Year Yu Sheng (新年鱼生).
This modern take on Yu Sheng is said to be created in the 1960s by a group of 4 master culinary chefs in Singapore, namely – chefs Lau Yoke Pui, Tham Yui Kai, Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai. The four chefs are widely known as the “Four Heavenly Kings” in Singapore’s restaurant scene for their superb culinary skills.
Our local version of Yu Sheng is unique to Singapore and other parts of Malaysia as it is not consumed in other parts of the world – even China. This cultural activity is practised throughout the Chinese New Year period.
When do we eat Yu Sheng?
Yu Sheng is usually eaten on the seventh day of Chinese New Year, which is also called Ren Ri (人日 or man’s birthday). However, these days we do not really stick to traditions. Most of us eat this dish just before or during the Chinese New Year period with our family or friends.
What are the ingredients found in the Yu Sheng?
Their recipe included ingredients like raw fish slices, shredded radish and carrots, ginger, onion, crushed peanuts, pomelo, sugar, five-spice powder and more. But there are not usually fixed. Some restaurants take their own spin on the recipe by adding unique ingredients like Bak Kwa (BBQ Pork) or abalone.
To enhance the taste, the chefs will add a pre-mixed sauce to the dish. This method of eating Yu Sheng was not readily accepted until the 1970s when younger diners started practising it. Since then, the tradition has been passed down the generations till today. Thank goodness, we are still practising it!
What does each ingredient represent?
Interestingly, each ingredient actually represents the well-wishes and 4-word blessings which we often used to wish one another during Chinese New Year. It reflects the creativity of the four chefs who came up with this idea of associating the blessings with the ingredients used.
Each of these ingredients is to be added to the main dish in a specific sequence. It starts with the raw fish slices and ends with the deep fried-flour pillow crisps.
1. Raw fish: Abundance year after year (年年有余)
In some Yu Sheng sets, they use raw salmon slices like the one shown here.
Sometimes lime is used in place of pomelo. In this particular Yu Sheng from Ichiban Boshi, they prepared candied shredded pomelo. They also incorporate a Yuzu (a type of pomelo) into the Yu Sheng sauce.
3. Pepper: A magnet for wealth and valuables (招财进宝)
4. Oil: Encourage money to flow in from all directions (财源广进)
This Yu Sheng does not provide oil as I believe that they decided to use BBQ Pork in place of oil. It’s also the year of the pig so why not? There’s the natural fragrant oil from the meat itself which goes really well with the other ingredients.
5. Carrots: Good luck ( 鸿运当头)
6. Green Radish: Eternal youth (青春常驻)
(Refer to image above)
7. White Radish: Prosperity in Business (风生水起) and promotion at work (步步高升)
(Refer to image above)
8. Chopped peanuts: gold and silver (金银满屋)
The chopped peanuts symbolise gold and silver which fills the house. It also symbolises everlasting youth.
9. Sesame seeds: Prosperity in business (生意兴隆 )
10. Plum sauce: a pleasant and loving life (甜甜蜜蜜)
In this Yu Sheng set, they provided a packet of Yuzu Yu Sheng sauce instead. This sweet and tangy sauce has a burst of citrus flavour.
11. Deep fried-flour Crisps: Golden nuggets (满地黄金)
My favourite Yu Sheng ingredient
In this particular set of Yu Sheng, it also comes with five-spice powder, cinnamon, red pickled ginger and more.
The Easy 12 Steps to ‘Lo Hei’
These Yu Sheng ingredients are usually packed in sealed plastic bags so you can conveniently plate the ingredients when you are about to eat Yu Sheng with your family, relatives, friends or colleagues. Before you start the Lo Hei session, remember to wish everyone at the table with an auspicious blessing.
As you empty out the ingredients, you will need to utter the blessings in Chinese out loud!
- Raw Fish Slices (Say Nian Nian You Yu (年年有余)! It means having abundance year after year.)
- Put in the pomelo slices (Say Da Ji Da Li (大吉大利)!)
- Sprinkle pepper and cinnamon powder to season the fish (Say Zhao Cai Jin Bao(招财进宝)!)
- Drizzle the oil all over, circling the ingredients (Say Cai Yuan Guang Jing (财原广进)!)
- Add shredded carrots to the raw fish(Say Hong Yun Dang Tou (鸿运当头)!)
- Put in shredded green radish (Say Qing Chun Chang Zhu (青春常驻)!)
- Add shredded white radish (Say Feng Sheng Shui Qi (风生水起) and Bu Bu Gao Sheng (步步高升)!)
- Dust the dish with chopped peanuts (Say Jin Yin Man Wu (金银满屋)!)
- Sprinkle the sesame seeds ( Say Sheng Yi Xing Long ( 生意兴隆)!)
- Toss in the crackers (Say Pian Di Huang Jin (遍地黄金)!)
- Drizzle the plum sauce all over (Say Tian Tian Mi Mi (甜甜蜜蜜)!)
- Toss the ingredients as high as you can! (Say or repeat any auspicious blessings)
Toss as high as you can!
After you have emptied out all the contents, everyone at the table can toss the ingredients with their own pair of chopsticks.
The higher you toss the ingredients up into the air, the better it is! As you toss, you may shout Huat ah (发啊)!
Finally, after all the tossing and mixing, you can serve them on a smaller plate and enjoy this raw fish salad dish. It often tastes quite sweet due to the addition of plum sauce.
We often forget these 12 steps when we eat Yu Sheng and always have to refer to a Yu Sheng guide. So don’t worry if you forget or miss out any of the steps!
This is a fun get-together dish that brings people together. It’s one of those Chinese New Year traditions which I hope it can last for generations.