The Year of the Water Dragon will be upon us on January 23 and here are some predictions gathered along the grapevine. No, the world will not end. Energy and high-tech sectors will do well, as will real estate and metals like gold and silver. It will be a somewhat unstable, unpredictable year.
Well, we can sit back and wait to see what will happen, or we can take a more proactive approach. By tradition, the 15-day-long Chinese New Year celebration offers a window of opportunity to affect your fortune for the year. Much has been written about all the auspicious foods that are homonyms or otherwise symbolic of all the good things we wish for in life: prosperity, happiness, longevity, and so on. All you need do is eat the right stuff, believe, then sally forth with wishful optimism, and good things will happen. So go ahead and gorge on mandarin oranges, macadamia nuts, and dumplings. But for more targeted protection from the current riptide of economic uncertainty and fluxing unemployment, I suggest yu sang.
Also transliterated as yu sheng, the words simply mean “raw fish”. But unlike austere Japanese sashimi—a relatively recent addition to the Chinese culinary repertoire—which is also often referred to as yu sang, this is a flamboyant raw fish salad that has become a new-year tradition among the Chinese diaspora in Singapore and Malaysia. To underscore its significance, it’s also often called ho wan yu sang or fat choy yu sang, which is translated into English as “prosperity fish salad”.
Allegedly invented in the ’60s by four famous chefs in Singapore—in pursuit of extra profit during the new-year period—and liberally adapted and reinterpreted since, it features raw fish to signify wealth; typical variations can include salmon, scallops, jellyfish, and abalone. A parade of colourful raw vegetables such as carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, daikon (sometimes dyed with food colouring), lettuce, and pickled ginger, all cut into strips or matchsticks, are laid out to represent vitality and vibrancy. The golden dressing is made from plum sauce and mandarin juice with optional spicing of ground five-spice and cinnamon. Peanuts, sesame seeds, and fried crisps are added to enrich progeny and for texture. And fruits like pomelo and pear are added to taste because you can never have too much profit.
Decked out prettily on a platter, the salad is then ready for the significant action from which it derives its other popular name, lo yu sang. The word lo means to toss and mix. In this context, it represents the active wheeling and dealing of successful movers and shakers to create, generate, and increase wealth. Lo hay in Cantonese means striking it big. To activate this, on the signal, all the attending diners are to dip their chopsticks into the salad and toss and mix the salad while chanting “Lo hay! Lo hay!” together, hence wishing each other success and advancement in the year to come.
It is believed that if you do this on the seventh day of the new year (designated everyone’s birthday to commemorate the day humans were created), you will be steered unerringly on the course to untold riches and career advancement.
While the “Heavenly Chefs” of Singapore can lay claim to this new Nonya classic, the history of yu sang can be traced as far back as the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC), when freshwater fish in the carp family was used. It was prescribed that the raw fish should be seasoned with green onions in spring and mustard in autumn. A food text in the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1279 to 1368) described a royal course of carp dressed with mustard, ginger, scallions, daikon, cilantro, salt, and vinegar. Yu sang was also cited in famous Ming and Qing dynasties fictional works such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin, and remains iconic today in southeastern Chinese regional cuisine.
For my money, I like my yu sang on the savoury side and a bit more traditional than the Singapore versions. Here’s a quick recipe that serves four people. Thinly slice about eight ounces of sashimi-grade salmon and four large scallops. Lay the seafood over a bed of julienned jicama, carrots, cucumber, red pepper, and green onions. Add some torn cilantro leaves, mint leaves, thinly sliced garlic cloves, and shredded ginger. Whisk together a dressing from two tablespoons Japanese sushi soy sauce, three tablespoons rice vinegar, two teaspoons sesame oil, and sugar to taste (about one teaspoon). Spice it up with some finely chopped fresh red chilies. Toss together vigorously at the table before serving and eat. For extra texture, serve the salad with deep-fried wonton wrappers or even store-bought tortilla chips.
Gung hay fat choy! May you live long and prosper.