By Michelle Chan
For the Bay Area News Group
When Singaporean families reunite for Lunar New Year, dinner often starts with yu sheng, a dish made with strips of raw fish and a riot of finely julienned vegetables. The dish is brought to the table as a composed salad, each ingredient placed demurely in its own pile.
Then the fun begins.
The host tears open lucky red envelopes to reveal not money, but chopped peanuts and sesame seeds. With a flourish, she scatters them atop the dish, and pours dressing over the whole lot. Then the gathering digs in with chopsticks, tossing the salad while chanting "lo-hei" -- or "mix it up!" -- seven times.
In the Mandarin language, one of the four official languages of Singapore, "yu sheng" means raw fish. But yu sheng also sounds like the word for "increased abundance," so the dish, which is only served during the new year festivities, symbolizes abundance and prosperity. And the higher you toss the ingredients, the luckier you'll be.
Expect culinary mayhem.
"The mess that you make, if everything flops on the table, is OK," Chris Yeo, the executive chef of Straits and Sino restaurants, says fondly. "It's more festive."
Yeo opened his first Straits restaurant in San Francisco in 1987 (and later in Burlingame and San Jose), because he missed the Singaporean food of his youth -- especially yu sheng.
"You're always craving that dish during the new year because it's fun," he says. "It's about everyone being together and in harmony." Naturally, raw fish is the star ingredient in yu sheng, but it can be supplemented with jellyfish, lobster or other more exotic seafood. It's traditionally accompanied by carrots and daikon radish, which represent good luck and prosperity. For sweetness, Singaporeans add fruits, such as pomelo, which represents good fortune, or candied melon. And the entire affair is topped with crunchy, toasty garnishes: crackers or fried wonton crisps, chopped peanuts resembling gold nuggets, and sesame seeds to bring prosperity.
"There's no secret to making it," says Yeo. "But everything has to be fresh."
Legend has it that yu sheng was invented in southern China, when a couple found themselves stranded at a temple during a bout of bad weather. According to Bonny Tan, of the National Library of Singapore, their only food was a freshly-caught fish, which they ate with vinegar.
But yu sheng, which is a beloved tradition across Malaysia and Singapore, is virtually unheard of in southern China. A more plausible, albeit less romantic, explanation comes from Singapore's Lai Wah Cantonese restaurant, which claims to have created the dish in 1964.
These days, the dish is so famous in Southeast Asia, no dignitary or high-ranking government official would think of hosting a Lunar New Year celebration without yu sheng as a first course, says Singaporean executive chef Willin Low. The chef and owner of Wild Rocket restaurant is considered one of the rising stars of that city's dining scene. He specializes in what's known as "Mod Sin" -- or Modern Singapore -- cuisine, a fusion of traditional dishes and flavors with Western inspiration.
It's not unheard of, he says, for yu sheng to include more than two dozen ingredients, including red pickled ginger, sun-dried oranges, and even, occasionally, abalone. Low's version takes a more streamlined, Mod Sin approach, with salmon carpaccio, mesclun and an orange and shallot oil vinaigrette.
Whether you use a traditional or new wave approach, serving and eating yu sheng is an elaborate procedure, steeped in ceremony. Each component is added in sequence, while reciting a specific series of good wishes. When adding golden wonton crisps, for example, the customary blessing is "Pang di huang jin" -- may your floor be covered in gold. But the real fun comes from the bevy of chopstick-wielding enthusiasts who are not afraid to shout lustily and toss food around.
And the salad and sauce are open to infinite variation. With so much culinary license, it's easy to go overboard when riffing on yu sheng. Santa Rosa resident Stacey Ariel, who lived for several years in Singapore, says that each year it seemed that restaurants got more creative, and not always for the better.
"The worst yu sheng I ever tried -- but one with interesting add-ins -- was a Tex-Mex version with crumbled tortilla chips instead of the fried wonton strips, and a salsa fresca instead of the plum sauce," she says. "To mix metaphors, not my cup of tea at all."
Yu Sheng Tips
This iconic Singaporean dish is served only during Lunar New Year. It traditionally includes raw fish and a variety of shredded vegetables, many chosen for their symbolism. Here are a few tips if you're making this at home:
Fish: Traditional choices include grass carp and salmon, but you can also use tuna or mackerel, or substitute pressed tofu for a vegetarian version. If using a strong-tasting fish, such as mackerel, marinate it in ginger slices for 15 minutes, then discard the ginger.
Vegetables: Use a mandolin or Japanese shredder to create long, fine strands.
Toppings: Use toppings and add-ins, such as crisply fried wonton strips, peanuts, sesame seeds, pickled ginger and finely shredded kaffir lime leaves, to add texture and flavor.