Yu Sheng

Yusheng (also spelt Yu Sheng) meaning "raw fish" is a Chinese New Year dish, served traditionally on the seventh day of Chinese New Year or Ren Ri ("Everyman's Birthday"). It is a salad dish made of thin slices of raw fish and various spices, mixed with tossing actions by diners. A play on Chinese homonyms links the ingredients and tossing actions to prosperity and longevity, all adding to the good wishes for the new year.

It is believed that Yusheng has its origins in southern China. Legend has it that a young man and his girlfriend found themselves stranded by bad weather at a temple with nothing to eat but a carp they had caught. Chancing upon a bottle of vinegar, they added this to the stripped carp and found it quite appetising. Today's colourful version of Yusheng and the practice of eating it on the seventh day of Chinese New Year appear to be unique to Malaysia and Singapore. Four local chefs are credited for developing Yusheng as we know it today. They named the dish "Lucky Raw Fish" and popularised it as a New Year delicacy. The chefs are Lau Yeok Pui and Tham Yui Kai, master chefs at Lai Wah Restaurant along Jalan Besar, and their good friends Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai. They had previously been colleagues at the Cathay Restaurant at Cathay Building.

Arranged on a large serving plate, the colourful array of ingredients include raw fish, which is traditionally ikan parang or "mackerel", shredded green and white radish drained of liquid, shredded carrots adding a bright orange tinge to the dish, pickled ginger, crushed nuts and pomelo. The ingredients are topped with various condiments including deep-fried flour crisps, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon, pepper and other spices. All at the table would then jointly toss the salad with a generous portion of plum sauce and cooking oil to add sweetness and taste.

Rituals and Meanings
Yusheng is deemed auspicious because of its homonymic quality - yu means "fish" but enunciated appropriately, it also means "abundance", while sheng literally means "raw" but enunciated appropriately, it means "life". Thus Yusheng implies "abundance of wealth and long life". In Cantonese, it is known as lo sheng with lo also meaning "tossing up good fortune". The tossing action is called lo hei, which means to "rise" (hei), again a reference to a thriving business and thus its popularity with businessmen during the New Year.

Step 1: All at the table offer New Year greetings.
Words: Gong xi fa cai meaning "congratulations for your wealth" or wan shi ru yi meaning "may all your wishes be fulfilled".

Step 2: Fish, symbolising abundance or excess through the year, is added.
Words: Nian nian you yu and you yu you sheng.

Step 3: The pomelo is added over the fish, adding both luck and auspicious value.
Words: Da ji da li.
Pepper is then dashed over the ingredients in the hope of attracting more money and valuables.
Words: Zhao cai jin bao.
Then oil is poured, circling the ingredients to increase all profits 10,000 times and to encourage money to flow in from all directions.
Words: Yi ben wan li and cai yuan guang jin.

Step 4: Carrots are added to the fish, indicating blessings of good luck.
Words: Hong yun dang tou.
Then the shredded green radish is placed on the fish, symbolising eternal youth.
Words: Qing chun chang zhu.
Next, the shredded white radish is added for prosperity in business and promotion at work.
Words: Feng sheng shui qi and bu bu gao sheng.

Step 5: The condiments are finally added. First, peanut crumbs are dusted on the dish, symbolising a household filled with gold and silver. As an icon of longevity, peanuts also symbolise eternal youth.
Words: Jin yin man wu.
Sesame seeds quickly follow symbolising a flourishing business.
Words: Sheng yi xing long.
Deep-fried flour crisps in the shape of golden pillows are then added with wishes that literally translate to mean the whole floor would be filled with gold.
Words: Pian di huang jin.

Step 6: All toss the salad an auspicious seven times with loud shouts of lo hei and other auspicious New Year wishes.
Words: Lo hei which is Cantonese for "tossing luck".
The ingredients are mixed by pushing them toward the centre, an encouragement to push on the good luck of all at the table.

In early Singapore, restaurants in Chinatown would deliver Yusheng directly to customers. Their delivery assistants would balance the ingredients on a wooden tray placed on their heads. One mai or "serving" would be placed on a pedestal dish and it would be covered with a conical tin, with the condiments wrapped like a hong bao. Young children were not encouraged to consume it as it was thought to trigger epilepsy. The dish was popular with the Cantonese, although the Teochews ate a simpler version where raw fish is dipped in sweet sauce.

Today, in more innovative and more expensive versions, salmon is used or is replaced with lobster and abalone. The vegetables include odd additions like the kiwi fruit, its jade-like green a symbol of prosperity. Various versions are also served at restaurants, from Japanese yusheng which have thick slices of sashimi to even Italian yusheng

Bonny Tan & Rakunathan Narayanan

Chan, K. S. (2001, January 22). A time to eat well and prosper. The Straits Times, Life!, p. 8.

Lucky invention that brings cheers to Lunar New Year. (1996, February 24). The Straits Times, Life!, p. 3. 

What's all the toss about? (1999, January 31). The Sunday Times, p. 19.

Yu sheng chefs toss tradition out the window. (1997, February 2). The Sunday Times, Sunday Plus, Leisure, p. 6. 

Further Readings
8 reasons to 'lo hei'. (1998, January 18). The Straits Times, p. 11.

List of Images
What's all the toss about? (1999, January 31). The Sunday Times, p. 19. 

The information in this article is valid as at 2002 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities
Ethnic Communities>>Food
Chinese New Year--Singapore
Cookery, Chinese
Singapore--Social life and customs

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