Food, Family And The Lunar New Year

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.

Eating Yusheng during the Lunar New Year is a family affair | Weekly Photo Challenge: Family. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Eating Yusheng during the Lunar New Year is a family affair | Weekly Photo Challenge: Family. Photo: Mabel Kwong

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?

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13 thoughts on “Food, Family And The Lunar New Year

    • If you are really keen, you can get pre-packaged Yusheng kits in Chinatown. The one you see in this post’s photo is the cheapest kit I could find ($8.80). To be honest, it actually tasted very good. I don’t know if Chinese food goes well with wine, though. During family Chinese dinners in Malaysia, it’s common for many to have a glass of red to go along with the food 🙂

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  1. This surely looks delicious, I showed my wife this dish but she never had even heard of it. So I gave it a quick check but it seems it became popular only in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Some areas in South China have some related dish but nothing even close to it in central China.
    But I guess I should have expected it as they are pretty far away from the sea and no real traditional fish dishes can exist for such areas =/
    It seems I have to wait till I visit some friends in Singapore at some point of my life during Lunar New Year 🙂

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    • From my knowledge, Yusheng is mainly eaten by those in Malaysia, Singapore and some parts of China. I heard that in Hong Kong, it’s almost unheard of. So you’re right. The Yusheng does look delicious – it’s colourful and don’t we all love colourful food! Though I must say, some plates of Yusheng come with a lot of ginger and this overpowers the taste of the other ingredients and the fish. I’m sure Chinatowns and Asian groceries all around the world sell Yusheng, maybe the one nearest to you does to. The one you see in the picture in this post is from a Yusheng kit from the Chinatown near my place 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Family | Erin O'Leary

  3. I love yu sheng toast, especially when i can eat fresh the salmon sashimi all by myself (mostly people did’t eat raw fish)
    i’m not chinese descent personally, but o love chinese cuisine
    my fest dish is buddha jump over the wall, tea smoked duck, dong po prk, braised shark fin with pork knuckle and any abaloneand sea cucumber dish!!!

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    • I love fresh salmon sashimi too! Not a lot of my family likes raw fish, so I get a big helping myself when we eat Yusheng! 🙂 Ah, all those Chinese dishes you mentioned are very popular Chinese dishes! Maybe try cooking them yourself sometime! 🙂

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    • Sorry to hear that, Dalo. Maybe next year you’ll be in Asia for the LNY! I prefer duck over goose. Not that I don’t like goose (I do), but sometimes I find goose a little tough on my teeth 🙂

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  4. Traditions, including what foods to eat, have to start from somewhere, and can easily be broken with the passing of time and generations. I think it’s about a gradual evolution rather than sticking to strict protocols.

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    • The more we learn to fuse different cuisines together, the more kinds of food we get. I’m not much of a foodie, but this thought makes me very happy. Who doesn’t like tasting new food? 🙂

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