Yusheng, yee sang or yuu sahng (Chinese: 魚生; pinyin: yúshēng; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: hî-seⁿ or hû-siⁿ), or Prosperity Toss, also known as lo hei (Cantonese for 撈起 or 捞起) is a Cantonese-style raw fish salad. It usually consists of strips of raw fish (sometimes salmon), mixed with shredded vegetables and a variety of sauces and condiments, among other ingredients. There is also a vegetarian version of this dish, where the fish is replaced with soy "fish", which resembles salmon. Yusheng literally means "raw fish" but since "fish (魚)" is commonly conflated with its homophone "abundance (余)", Yúshēng (魚生) is interpreted as a homophone for Yúshēng (余升) meaning an increase in abundance. Therefore, yusheng is considered a symbol of abundance, prosperity and vigor.
While versions of it are thought to have existed in China, the contemporary version was created and popularised in the 1960s amongst the ethnic Chinese community and its consumption has been associated with Chinese New Year festivities in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in Maritime Southeast Asia.
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"), this present colourful take on yusheng has an uncertain origin. However, there are two competing claims to the origins of the modern take on yusheng: first was said to be invented by a Malaysian named Loke Ching Fatt in Seremban, Malaysia in the 1940s; second 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 generally includes 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.
Fishermen along the coast of Guangzhou traditionally celebrated Renri, the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, by feasting on their catches. The practice of eating raw fish in thinly sliced strips can be traced back to ancient China through the raw fish or meat dish known as kuai (膾, kuài). However the present form of yusheng is believed to have started in Chaozhou and Shantou as far back as the Southern Song Dynasty.
There is also a legend regarding its origin. It was believed that in south China, a young man and his girlfriend found themselves stranded by bad weather at a temple with nothing to eat, but they managed to catch a carp. Chancing upon a bottle of vinegar, they added this to the stripped carp and found it quite appetising.
In Malaya's colonial past, migrants imported this tradition; porridge stalls sold a raw fish dish which is believed to have originated in Jiangmen, Guangdong province that consisted of fish, turnip and carrot strips, which was served with condiments of oil, vinegar and sugar that were mixed in by customers.
Eating Yu Sheng during Chinese New Year is a cultural activity for Chinese living in Malaysia, but not so much in other Chinese-populated countries such as Hong Kong, where the practice is almost unheard of.
It was modified by 4 master chefs in 1964 in a restaurant kitchen in Singapore. It made its Singapore debut during Lunar New Year of 1964 in Singapore's Lai Wah Restaurant (Established in Sept. 1963). The 4 master chefs were Than Mui Kai (Tham Yu Kai, co-head chef of Lai Wah Restaurant), Lau Yoke Pui (co-head chef of Lai Wah Restaurant), Hooi Kok Wai (founder of Dragon-Phoenix Restaurant, established on 8 April 1963) and Sin Leong (founder of Sin Leong Restaurant) who, together created that as a symbol of prosperity and good health amongst the Chinese.
In the 1970s, Lai Wah Restaurant started the modern-day method of serving yu sheng with a pre-mixed special sauce comprising plum sauce, rice vinegar, kumquat paste and sesame oil – instead of customers mixing inconsistently-concocted sauce.
However, the Malaysian Chinese dispute the origins of this dish, so much that the dish was declared Malaysian heritage food by the Malaysian Department of National Heritage. One thing is certain though, that this dish has its roots deep in the Southern part of China.
Ingredients and their symbolism
When putting the yu sheng on the table, New Year greetings are offered. Some of the phrases commonly used are:
- 恭喜发财 / 恭喜發財 (pinyin: gong xi fa cai; Jyutping: gung1 hei2 faat3 coi4) meaning "Congratulations for your wealth"
- 万事如意 / 萬事如意 (pinyin: wan shi ru yi; Jyutping: maan6 si6 jyu4 ji3) meaning "May all your wishes be fulfilled"
The fish is added – its Mandarin word, "魚" corresponds to a homophone of it "余 / 餘" meaning "abundance", thus 年年有余 / 年年有餘 (pinyin: nian nian you yu; Jyutping: nin4 nin4 jau5 jyu4), "abundance through the year". Pomelo or lime (大利, dali / daai lei) is added to the fish, adding luck and auspicious value (大吉大利 pinyin: da ji da li; Jyutping: daai6 gat1 daai6 lei6, meaning "good luck and smooth sailing"). Pepper is then dashed over in the hope of attracting more money and valuables. 招财进宝 / 招財進寶 pinyin: zhao cai jin bao; Jyutping: ziu1 coi4 zeon3 bou2 meaning "Attract wealth and treasures". Then oil is poured out, circling the ingredients and encouraging money to flow in from all directions – referring to 一本万利 / 一本萬利 pinyin: yi ben wan li; Jyutping: jat1 bun2 maan6 lei6, meaning "make 10,000 times of profit with your capital", and 财源广进 / 財源廣進 pinyin: cai yuan guang jin; Jyutping: coi4 jyun4 gwong2 zeon3 meaning "numerous sources of wealth".
Carrots are added indicating blessings of good luck: the first word in the compound word representing the ingredient, "红萝卜 / 紅蘿蔔" (pinyin: hong luo bo; Jyutping: hung4 lo4 baak6), 红 / 紅 (hong / hung) has a homophone in 鸿 / 鴻 referring to 鸿运当头 / 鴻運當頭 pinyin: hong yun dang tou; Jyutping: hung4 wan6 dong1 tau4 meaning "good luck is approaching". Shredded green radish is later added symbolising eternal youth – 青春常驻 / 青春常駐 pinyin: qing chun chang zhu; Jyutping: cing1 ceon1 soeng4 zyu3, "forever young". After which the shredded white radish is added – prosperity in business and promotion at work (风生水起 / 風生水起 pinyin: feng sheng shui qi; Jyutping: fung1 saang1 seoi2 hei2 – "progress at a fast pace", 步步高升 pinyin: bu bu gao sheng; Jyutping: bou6 bou6 gou1 sing1 – "reaching higher level with each step").
The condiments are finally added. First, peanut crumbs are dusted on the dish, symbolising a household filled with gold and silver (金银满屋 / 金銀滿屋 pinyin: jin yin man wu; Jyutping: gam1 ngan4 mun5 uk1, meaning "household filled with gold and silver"). Sesame seeds quickly follow symbolising a flourishing business (生意兴隆 / 生意興隆 pinyin: sheng yi xing long; Jyutping: saang1 ji3 hing1 lung4, meaning "prosperity for the business") Yu Sheng sauce, usually made from plum sauce, is generously drizzled over everything – a reference to 甜甜蜜蜜 pinyin: tian tian mi mi; Jyutping: tim4 tim4 mat6 mat6, meaning "may life always be sweet" Deep-fried flour crisps in the shape of golden pillows is then added with wishes that literally the whole floor would be filled with gold (遍地黄金 / 遍地黃金 pinyin: bian di huang jin; Jyutping: pin3 dei6 wong4 gam1, "floor full of gold").
Modern version of the dish
The yusheng had fish served with daikon (white radish), carrots, red pepper (capsicum), turnips, red pickled ginger, sun-dried oranges, key lime leaves, coriander, chilli, jellyfish, chopped peanuts, toasted sesame seeds, Chinese shrimp crackers (or fried dried shrimp), five spice powder and other ingredients, laced with a sauce using plum sauce, rice vinegar, kumquat paste and sesame oil, for a total of 27 ingredients. Originally, the dish used raw wolf herring, although salmon was later offered as an alternative due to said species' growing popularity with customers.
Yusheng is often served as part of a multi-dish dinner, usually as the appetizer due to its symbolism of "good luck" for the new year. Some would consume it on Renri, the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, although in practice it may be eaten on any convenient day during the Chinese New Year period (the first to the 15th day of the first lunar month).
The base ingredients are first served. The leader amongst the diners or the restaurant server proceeds to add ingredients such as the fish, the crackers and the sauces while saying "auspicious wishes" (吉祥话 / 吉祥話 pinyin: jíxiáng huà; Jyutping: gat1 coeng4 waa6*2) as each ingredient is added, typically related to the specific ingredient being added. For example, phrases such as 年年有余 / 年年有餘 (pinyin: niánnián yŏuyú; Jyutping: nin4 nin4 jau5 jyu4; "may there be abundance year after year") are uttered as the fish is added, as the Chinese word for "surplus" or "abundance" (余 / 餘 pinyin: yú; Jyutping: jyu4) sounds the same as the Chinese word for "fish" (鱼 / 魚 pinyin: yú; Jyutping: jyu4).
All diners at the table then stand up and proceed to toss the shredded ingredients into the air with chopsticks while saying various "auspicious wishes" out loud, or simply "lo hei, lo hei" (撈起, 撈起 pinyin: lāoqǐ, lāoqǐ meaning "scoop it up, scoop it up"). It is believed that the height of the toss reflects the height of the diners' growth in fortunes, thus diners are expected to toss enthusiastically.