Yusheng


Yusheng (鱼生; yusang in Cantonese), meaning “raw fish” in Chinese, is a salad dish comprising thin slices of raw fish and various seasonings that are mixed together as diners toss the ingredients. It is a dish usually eaten during Chinese New Year. Traditionally a simple dish with few ingredients, the yusheng recipe has evolved over the decades and now comprises a wide variety of ingredients.

Yusheng in China
The dish of raw fish slices dates back more than 2,000 years in China. The earliest known written documentation of the dish can be traced to 823 BCE during the Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE–256 BCE). It became so popular after the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) that Chinese scholars such as Cao Zhi (曹植) wrote poems praising the dish. Its popularity waned, however, after the Yuan dynasty (1271 CE–1368 CE) due to hygiene concerns. The dish almost disappeared in China near the end of the Qing dynasty (1889 CE–1912 CE) – its consumption became largely limited to the southern parts of Guangzhou and Chaozhou.1 Today, the dish can still be found in these areas. The fish slices are mixed in peanut oil or dark soya sauce, along with other condiments such as salt, white sugar, peanuts, sesame seeds, garlic, ginger slices, onion slices, sliced turnip and lemon juice.2

Yusheng in Singapore
The custom of having the dish on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, also known as renri (人日; “everyman’s birthday”), was brought to Singapore with the migration of Cantonese and Teochew people from China in the 19th century. It is believed that the Chinese from Jiangmen, Guangdong province, were the first to start selling the dish in Singapore, which comprised raw fish slices tossed with ginger slices, spring onion, coriander, sesame seeds, lime juice and oil.3


Traditionally, there are two types of yusheng consumed in Singapore – Cantonese and Teochew.4 The Cantonese yusheng is eaten on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year – the meal is shared amongst businessmen to ensure a prosperous year ahead.5 Thinly sliced raw fish is served with an array of vegetables and tossed together in a piquant sauce. Porridge may be served to wash down the taste of the raw fish. For the Teochews, the dish, known as husay, is eaten throughout the new year period. The fish is first air-dried before it is sliced, topped with sesame seeds and served with sliced vegetables and a sweet-and-sour sauce.6

Restaurants in Chinatown used to deliver yusheng directly to customers. Delivery assistants balanced the ingredients on a wooden tray balanced on their heads. One mai (serving) would be placed on a pedestal dish and covered with a conical tin, with the condiments wrapped up in what resembled a hongbao (red packet). Young children were discouraged from consuming it because it was thought to trigger epilepsy.7

Evolution and variations
From a simple dish with only a few ingredients, the yusheng recipe has gone through a series of transformations from the 1930s onwards. In 1933, the boss of Loong Yik Kee Restaurant began selling yusheng with the addition of pickled vegetables, sugar and vinegar.8 Yow Kee, which had been serving yusheng in Kuala Lumpur since 1945, opened a branch in Singapore in 1978 at the Fook Hai Building. It used a unique secret sauce that likely included plum sauce.9

Today, the common form of yusheng is the qicai yusheng (七彩鱼生; “seven-coloured raw fish salad”) served in local restaurants during the Chinese New Year period. Also referred to as facai yusheng (发财鱼生; “prosperity raw fish salad”) or xinnian yusheng (新年鱼生; “Chinese New Year raw fish salad”),10 this colourful take on yusheng was said to be created in the 1960s by chefs Lau Yoke Pui, Tham Yui Kai, Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai, together known as the “Four Heavenly Kings” in the Singapore restaurant scene. The recipe included ingredients such as shredded white and green radish and carrots, ginger slices, onion slices, crushed peanuts, pomelo, pepper, essence of chicken, oil, salt, vinegar, sugar and more. To enhance the taste, the chefs began the practice of pre-mixing the sauce in order to ensure a balanced taste for each dish as compared to the past when diners mixed the sauce themselves. This new way of eating yusheng was not readily accepted until the 1970s when younger diners embraced it. From then on, the popularity of this yusheng recipe soared and spread overseas.11

There is no strict recipe to follow for yusheng, and slight variations may be found in different restaurants. Some spins on the recipe include the addition of salmon, lobster or abalone, while versions like masala, Thai and Vietnamese yusheng are also available. Kiwifruit is sometimes included as its jade-like colour is taken to symbolise prosperity.12

Carp is generally used for yusheng, with the water grass carp being the preferred choice in Hong Kong. In Singapore, the wolf herring – commonly known as sai tor her in Teochew or ikan parang in Malay13 – is used because the raw carp is prone to hookworms and other such parasites.14

Yusheng in its simple form – raw fish slices in sesame oil and usually served with ginger slices and chilli – can be found all year round at foodstalls in hawker centres and other eating establishments.15

Rituals and meanings
Today’s ritual of eating yusheng during Chinese New Year involves all the people at the table tossing the salad and uttering auspicious phrases.16 The dish is deemed auspicious because of the homonymic meanings behind its ingredients, which suggest blessings and good fortune for the new year: yu is a homonym for “fish” and “abundance”, while sheng means both “raw” and “life”. Together, yusheng implies “abundance of wealth and long life”. In the Cantonese dialect, the dish is known as lohei, where lo implies “tossing up good fortune” and hei means “to rise”, again a reference to a prosperous business and thus its popularity with businessmen during the new year celebrations.17 The ingredients of yusheng vary among restaurants, and one such recipe is presented below along with examples of auspicious phrases that may be uttered as each ingredient is added.


Step 1: All at the table offer auspicious greetings.
Words: Gongxi facai (恭喜发财; “wishing you wealth and good fortune”) or wanshi ruyi (万事如意; “may all your wishes be fulfilled”).

Step 2: Fish, symbolising abundance or excess through the year, is added. 
Words: Nian nian youyu (年年有余)

Step 3: The pomelo is added over the fish, adding both luck and auspicious value.
Words: Daji dali (大吉大利)
Pepper is then dashed over the ingredients to symbolise greater prosperity and fortune.
Words: Zhaocai jinbao (招财进宝)
Oil is poured, circling the ingredients to symbolise the multifold increase of profits and to encourage money to flow in from all directions.
Words: Yibenwanli (一本万利) and caiyuan guang jin (财源广进)

Step 4: Carrots are added to the fish, indicating blessings of good luck.
Words: Hongyun dangtou (鸿运当头)
Then the shredded green radish is placed on the fish, symbolising eternal youth.
Words: Qingchun chang zhu (青春常驻).
Next, the shredded white radish is added for prosperity in business and promotion at work.
Words: Feng sheng shui qi (风生水起) and bubu gaosheng (步步高升)

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: Jinyin manwu (金银满屋)
Sesame seeds follow, symbolising growth in business.
Words: Shengyi Xinglong (生意兴隆)
Deep-fried flour crisps in the shape of golden pillows are then added, with wishes that literally translate to mean that the whole floor would be filled with gold.
Words: Biandi huangjin (遍地黄金)

Step 6: All at the table stand up and toss the salad an auspicious seven times with loud shouts of lohei and other new year wishes.
The ingredients are mixed by pushing them towards the centre, an encouragement to push on the good luck of all at the table. Some may lift clumps of the salad as high as possible to symbolise the increase in good fortune.18



Authors

Bonny Tan, Rakunathan Narayanan & Lee Meiyu



References
1. 常万里 (主编) [Chang, W. L. (Ed.)]. (2003). 《四书五经》[Four books and five classics]. 北京: 中国华侨出版社, p. 250. (Call no.: Chinese R C000.071 SSW); 文春梅 [Wen, C. M.]. (2011). 《广府味道》[The taste of Guangzhou]. 广州: 暨南大学出版社, p. 7. (Call no.: Chinese R 394.12095127 WCM-[CUS])

2. Low, M. (Producer). (2008, October). Food hometown [Television series, episode 4]. Singapore: MediaCorp Pte Ltd. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZN3EZVw7bg
3. Low, M. (Producer). (2008, October). Food hometown [Television series, episode 4]. Singapore: MediaCorp Pte Ltd. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZN3EZVw7bg; Chua, J. C. H. (Interviewer). (2014, August 1). Oral history interview with Thian Boon Hua [MP3 recording no. 003888/66/16]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; 蔡澜 [Cai, L.]. (2012). 《蔡澜食单: 东南亚卷二》[Cai Lan’s recipes: Southeast Asia vol. 2]. 济南市: 山东画报出版社, p. 92. (Call no.: Chinese 394.12095 CL)
4. Hutton, W. (2007). Singapore food. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, pp. 47, 63. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 HUT)
5. Oon, V. (1978, February 9). Meaningful new year customs deserve a place in our lives. New Nation, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Where you find luck – in the form of raw fish. (1980, February 10). The Straits Times, p. 17; Oon, V. (1979, February 9). Pricey, but Teochew ‘husay’ tastes better than ‘yee sang’. New Nation, pp. 10–11; Oon, V. (1979, February 2). It’s ‘yee sang’ day tomorrow for strict traditionalists. New Nation, pp. 10–11; Tan, L. L. (1981, February 14). Fresh fishy delights. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Chan, K. S. (2001, January 22). A time to eat well and prosperThe Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Low, M. (Producer). (2008, October). Food hometown [Television series, episode 4]. Singapore: MediaCorp Pte Ltd. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZN3EZVw7bg; Chua, C. H. (Interviewer). (2014, August 1). Oral history interview with Thian Boon Hua [MP3 recording no. 003888/66/16]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; 蔡澜 [Cai, L.]. (2012). 《蔡澜食单: 东南亚卷二》[Cai Lan’s recipes: Southeast Asia vol. 2], p. 92. 济南市: 山东画报出版社. (Call no.: R Chinese 394.12095 CL)
9. Oon, V. (1979, February 2). It’s ‘yee sang’ day tomorrow for strict traditionalists. New Nation, pp. 10–11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Cheng, C. S. (1993, January 17). Fa cai yusheng – a Singapore original. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Low, M. (Producer). (2008, October). Food hometown [Television series, episode 4]. Singapore: MediaCorp Pte Ltd. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZN3EZVw7bg; Lee, G. B. (2009). Classic Asian salads. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, p. 113. (Call no.: RSING 641.83 LEE)
11. Low, M. (Producer). (2008, October). Food hometown [Television series, episode 4]. Singapore: MediaCorp Pte Ltd. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZN3EZVw7bg; Chua, J. C. H. (Interviewer). (2014, August 1). Oral history interview with Thian Boon Hua [MP3 recording no. 003888/6616]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Lee, G. B. (2009). Classic Asian salads. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, p. 113. (Call no.: RSING 641.83 LEE)
12. Wong, A. Y., & Lum, M. (1997, February 2). Yu sheng chefs toss tradition out the window. The Straits Times, p. 6; Wong, A. Y. (1999, February 21). Big toss-up between modern and tradition. The Straits Times, p. 8; Wong, J. (2005, February 6). Lo hei and behold. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Tiong Bahru Fishball. (n.d.). About us. Retrieved from Tiong Bahru Fishball website: http://www.tiongbahrufishball.com/info/About-us.html
14. Khng. (1984, January 29). Try some salmon yu sheng. The Straits Times, p. 17; Hoo, Y. G. (1985, February 23). Give prosperity a toss. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Lin, M. (2015, July 31). Yusheng sales plunge on bacteria warning. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
16. Tan, C., & Van, A. (2012). Chinese heritage cooking. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, pp. 164–165.; What’s all the toss about? (1999, January 31). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Low, M. (Producer). (2008, October). Food hometown [Television series, episode 4]. Singapore: MediaCorp Pte Ltd. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZN3EZVw7bg
17. Wong, A. Y., & Lum, M. (1997, February 2). Yu sheng chefs toss tradition out the window. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. What’s all the toss about? (1999, January 31). The Straits Times, p. 19; Wong, D. (2005, February 6). Toss for luck. The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, G. B. (2009). Classic Asian salads. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, p. 113. (Call no.: RSING 641.83 LEE)



Further resources
8 reasons to ‘lo hei’. (1998, January 18). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


A dish fit for every man. (1986, February 9). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Cheng, C. S. (1993, January 17). A lesson in fa cai Yu Sheng. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Distinct flavours of different dialect group. (1993, January 17). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Lee, G. L. (1981, January 22). Raw fish ritual to good luck. New Nation, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Lim, S. (2004, January 22). Prosperity fish – Singapore’s national dish? The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Moey, K. K. (Interviewer). (2000, October 5). Oral history interview with Chia Yee Kwan [MP3 recording no. 002381/45/33]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline

Teo, H. W. (1982, February 2). New Year food with specific meaning. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Tham, Y. K. (1983). Tham Yui Kai cookery book. Singapore: Tham Y. K.
(Call no.: RSING 641.5951 THA)

Widjaja, U. (2009, October 4). Laksa and lor mee are… Indonesian. The Straits Times, p. 33. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Woofus, A. (1994, February 10). Hey, it’s time to ‘lo hei!’ The Straits Times, p. 51. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to 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.

 

Subject
Heritage and Culture
Events
People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities
Singapore--Social life and customs
Chinese New Year--Singapore
Ethnic Communities>>Food
Cookery, Chinese
Ethnic foods

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