Yusheng (鱼生; sometimes spelt as yu sheng), meaning "raw fish", is a Chinese New Year dish traditionally served on the seventh day of Chinese New Year, a day also known as ren ri (everyman's birthday). It is a salad dish comprising thin slices of raw fish and various spices, mixed as diners toss the ingredients. A play on Chinese homonyms links the ingredients and the tossing to prosperity and longevity, all adding to the good wishes for the new year.
It is believed that yusheng originated from 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 the Cathay building.
Arranged on a large serving plate, the colourful array of ingredients include raw fish, which is traditionally ikan parang (mackerel), shredded green and white radish drained of liquid, shredded carrots, which add 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 appropriately enunciated it also means "abundance"; while sheng literally means "raw", but appropriately enunciated 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 celebrations.
Step 1: All at the table offer new-year greetings.
Words: Gong xi fa cai (恭喜发财; wishing you wealth and good fortune) or wan shi ru yi (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 you yu (年年有鱼) and you yu you sheng (有鱼有生).
Step 3: The pomelo is added over the fish, adding both luck and auspicious value.
Words: Da ji da li (大吉大利).
Pepper is then dashed over the ingredients in the hope of attracting more money and valuables.
Words: Zhao cai jin bao (招财进宝).
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 (一本万利) and cai yuan guang jin (财源广进).
Step 4: Carrots are added to the fish, indicating blessings of good luck.
Words: Hong yun dang tou (鸿运当头).
Then the shredded green radish is placed on the fish, symbolising eternal youth.
Words: Qing chun 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 bu bu gao sheng (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: Jin yin man wu (金银满屋).
Sesame seeds quickly follow, symbolising a flourishing business.
Words: Sheng yi xing long (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: Pian di huang jin (遍地黄金).
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 (serving) would be placed on a pedestal dish and covered with a conical tin, with the condiments wrapped like a hong bao (red packet). 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, lobster or abalone are sometimes used. The vegetables may include 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, p. 8.
Lucky invention that brings cheers to Lunar New Year. (1996, February 24). The Straits Times, 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, p. 6.
8 reasons to 'lo hei'. (1998, January 18). The Straits Times, p. 11.
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.