Just like how roast is often a staple eaten at Christmas, it is customary for the Chinese to feast on Yusheng, a raw fish salad, during the Lunar New Year.
Yee sang, yuu sahng, lo hei or ‘Prosperity Toss’ are alternate names for this salad that is typically served at the beginning of multi-course meals during the Chinese New Year. It is a dish that is a symbolism of good luck in the new lunar year ahead.
In my recent interview with 4EB FM’s Where Are You From, I suggested the Lunar New Year is the Chinese’s version of Christmas – both are family-oriented, food gorging occasions for many Asians and Westerners respectively.
What exactly makes eating the Yusheng a family affair? How do we see or define “family” through this dish?
In a nutshell, family is about kin, those related to us by blood. Family also signifies belonging, comfort and togetherness.
Eating Yusheng is undoubtedly a united activity which everyone at the dinner table participates in. Once the shredded ingredients – fish, orange carrots, green cucumbers, pale pomelo, red pickled ginger etc. – are laid out separately on a large plate in the centre of a table, all family members gather round, stand and using their chopsticks, toss and mix the salad ingredients. No one starts the toss when someone is still sitting down – everyone is included, messing up the ingredients together at one go.
A sense of equality is fostered when those of us sit down and have some Yusheng. Most of the time, this appetiser is served on a round table on a round plate. Everyone sitting at the table is more or less the same distance away from the dish. Everyone has roughly the same chances of reaching the salad and tossing it in the air to reap good fortune. Everyone faces one another around the circular table – it’s easy to get the other’s attention and include them in conversation whilst eating the salad.
Eating Yusheng also arguably cultivates a sense of camaraderie. Like many other Chinese main dishes, Yusheng is a sharing dish. It also tends to be one large expensive dish and usually after everyone grabs their share there is bound to be leftovers. It is common practice for those at the table to encourage one another to grab another serving, making sure everyone has something to eat, or in my family’s case, too much to eat.
Sometimes, mealtimes are not all smooth sailing affairs. For instance, disagreement on what to order in a restaurant. During Chinese New Year dinners in Malaysia, my mum always chided me for not tossing the Yusheng correctly, saying I should throw the ingredients higher up in the air with my chopsticks. She also kept insisting I open my shut mouth to shout “lo hei” (撈起) as we did the toss.
However, I’m a short person with short arms – I can only throw the salad up so high. From my mum’s stern tone, I always sensed she wants her offspring to adhere strictly to tradition so that good fortune may befall us, her family, for Asian face’s sake.
But then again, this is what family is about too. Conflict. Disagreement. In every culture, no household is free from arguments big or small. Sometimes, our differences come out through these squabbles and we learn to respect one another as individuals.
At the end of the day, I think we can all agree that all food served during the Chinese New Year, Christmas and all other celebratory occasions is hands down delicious. We hardly ever complain about festive food not sitting well with our tastebuds, don’t we?
What are some of your favourite festive dishes?