A certain holiday associated with the color red and sweet things is this Sunday. I am not referring to that Hallmark-inspired celebration we like to call Valentine’s Day, but rather Chinese (Lunar) New Year. While there are a few advertisements and promotions for Valentine’s Day in Singapore, the majority of attention is focused on the New Year. The streets of Chinatown (and all of the shopping malls) are filled with booths selling red hong bao (gift envelopes for money), cookies and pineapple tarts, mandarin oranges, bak kwa (a sort of jerky), and other auspicious foods. The New Year is spent visiting one’s family and, it would seem, eating. Those visiting take gifts (cookies seem to be the most popular judging from the sheer number for sale) and have reunion dinners with their relatives.
I’ve sampled some of the New Year cookies and I find them too dry and crumbly. However, there is one traditional New Year dish I think I could eat year-round: Yu Sheng, which literally means raw fish. Interestingly, I was told this was a tradition only in Malaysia and Singapore and that you can’t find it in China. Some preliminary internet research suggests that the dish may be related to a Cantonese raw fish salad, although modern credit is generally given to the famous “four Heavenly Culinary Kings” of Singapore: Sin Leong, Lau Yeak Pui, Hooi Kok Wai and Tham Mui Kai, who teamed up in the early 1960s to create the dish.
The salad is an eclectic, colorful mix of seemingly-random ingredients, but each one has a specific meaning. It includes: raw fish (“fish” is a homophone for “abundance” in Chinese); pomelo (for luck); pepper (to attract valuables); oil (to symbolize money flowing in); grated carrots (for good luck); grated green radish (for youth); grated white radish (for prosperity in business); ground peanuts (for a house filled with gold and silver); sesame seeds (for a successful business); and deep-fried crackers (to represent gold). I have also seen versions that include pickled ginger (white and red), pickled papaya, plum sauce, and cinnamon, among other ingredients, but I don’t know what these are supposed to represent. The dish created by the Heavenly Kings supposedly had 27 ingredients, so I imagine there are a number of permutations in existence today.
The most exciting part of Yu Sheng is its preparation. After all of the ingredients are put on a plate, everyone grabs a pair of chopsticks and begins to toss the salad. The tossing is called lo hei, which means “to toss up luck.” The higher you toss, the more luck and good fortune you will have in the New Year. And the higher you toss the more chance you have of a making a mess, so it’s entertaining as well as auspicious.
I didn’t have high expecations for yu sheng, because the ingredients looked too colorful and random (something was bright red; something was bright green; cinnamon and oil and plum sauce?) However, it was delicious – sweet, salty and crunchy at the same time with a distinct gingery taste – a combination I apparently find mildly addictive. I have since purchased a DIY kit at the grocery store, which is sitting on my kitchen table awaiting the New Year. I’m not sure if it’ll last that long, since writing this post is making me want to toss and eat it now.