Let’s “Lo Hei” with Yee Sang!

I remember, back in the good old days when I was a kid growing up in Ipoh, eating “Yee Sang” as almost akin to eating something sacred. Yee Sang was only available during Chinese New Year and never ever made any appearance before that. Back then, tossing the Yee Sang was a real treat to us, as not many could afford it and it was a pretty rare thing even amongst many people.

In its literal translation, “Yee Sang” means “raw fish”. As a Cantonese phrase, Yee Sang as a whole, is synonymous with “prosperity” and “abundance” as “fish” in Cantonese rhymes with another similar word meaning “abundant”. Furthermore, eating raw fish and raw vegetables together signifies the renewal of life. Originating from the Cantonese people in China, it’s said that the Yee Sang culture was brought to Malaysia in the 1920’s when people from China emigrated to all parts of the world.

The tradition of eating raw fish in China started with the fishermen living along the coast of Guangzhou. They celebrate the 7th day of the Chinese New Year, known as “Yan Yatt” by feasting on their fresh catches. This is a tradition my mother practised until we all moved away from home – she would prepare thinly sliced raw fish, ginger and spring onions which would then be dunked into piping hot porridge, served as breakfast on the 7th day of the Lunar New Year. It is believed that this practice of eating sliced raw fish together with julienne’ed raw vegetables evolved into the modern-day Yee Sang that we know today.

In the process, more and more variations of vegetables and fruits are added in. Staple items are white radish (usually dyed red and green), carrots, ginger (both fresh and pickled), red and green capsicum, spring onions, Chinese parsley and cucumber. Common fruits added in are pomelo, pears, lime, oranges, pineapple and even dragonfruit and honeydew. For the added crunch and crackle, deep-fried flour fritters, usually in the shape of “ingots”, together with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds are scattered all over the pile of fruits and vegetables. The significance of the fritters and nuts is “to line the streets with gold”, heralding a year ahead that’s filled with great wealth.

From the early basic plum sauce to bind the dish, it is now not uncommon to see restaurants offering strawberry sauce, wasabi sauce, black sesame sauce, creamy truffle sauce laced with foie gras and for the health-conscious, balsamic vinaigrette sauce! This goes to show how far the Yee Sang has evolved, pandering to the convolution of food trends and tastes.

As far as I can remember, carp was the preferred raw fish used in Yee Sang and some restaurants now still do offer this. In the last 5 years or so, salmon has been the preferred choice of fish, possibly due to its popularity in sashimi, its easy availability and I guess its attractive orangey-red colour plays a persuasive role. Since a couple of years ago, besides fish, other seafood like abalones, topshells, jellyfish and even soft-shell crabs have been popular.

Everything about the Yee Sang focuses on “abundance”, “wealth” and “prosperity”, starting with the tossing of the ingredients. A simple act to merely mix everything evenly, this particular gesture has been elevated to the physical act of “lifting your hopes and wishes to the maximum” – the height of your toss is proportional to your growth in fortunes. Tossing the Yee Sang is often referred to as “Lo Hei” meaning “to prosper more and more!” It’s not surprising then that you get a beautiful mess on the platter once the Yee Sang has been tossed!

You can trust the Chinese to come up with the most appropriate association and meaning of the ingredients used in Yee Sang. It is customary, in fact, it is expected that sayings or greetings filled with meaningful phrases and words are uttered when mixing in the ingredients and sauces of the Yee Sang. For example, when the raw fish/seafood is added, symbolising abundance, “Nian Nian Yau Yue” is uttered, which means “Abundance throughout the year” as “fish” sounds like “abundance” in Mandarin. Lime is “katt” in Cantones and when strips of lime peel or limejuice is added in, “Tai Katt Tai Lei’ is said, meaning “Good Luck coming your way”. As earlier mentioned, the fritters and nuts signify “gold”, hence “Moon Tei Wong Kam” is offered, meaning “may your road or home be lined with gold”. Lastly, when the sauce and oil are poured in a circular movement over the mountain of ingredients, mimicking “money and wealth coming in many directions”, the right thing to say is “Yatt Pun Man Lei” as in wishing you “10,000 profits from a single capital”!

Depending on the type of raw fish offered, eating Yee Sang at the restaurants can be an expensive affair but then most people do not mind paying an exorbitant price for what is essentially just a salad during a Chinese New Year meal. Given its significance, it is actually a dish that many look forward to eating with family and friends. However, if you wish to prepare it at home, all it takes is some effort and time as cost-wise, the ingredients are not very expensive.

Here’s a simple recipe for Yee Sang:

Ingredients:

150g carrots (shredded)
150g white radish (shredded)
150g Chinese pear (shredded)
150g peeled pomelo
50g Chinese parsley
50g spring onions (sliced finely)
50g young ginger (cut into thin strips)
100g pickled papaya (cut into thin strips)
80g pickled leeks (sliced finely)
1 red chilli (cut into thin strips)

100g toasted peanuts, pounded
50g toasted sesame seeds

300g raw fish (salmon, tuna, carp etc)

½ tsp white pepper
½ tsp 5-spice powder
1 tbsp lime juice

Sauce

250g plum sauce
2 tbsp strawberry/raspberry jam
2 tbsp honey
3 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp salt

Method

  1. Cook the sauce by mixing all the sauce ingredients in a pot, bring to boil and let it cool.
  2. Arrange all the raw vegetables and fruits attractively on a big platter.
  3. Sprinkle the white pepper, 5-spice powder and 1 tbsp lime juice over the raw fish before arranging the fish slices all over the vegetables and fruits.
  4. Pour the sauce over in a circular motion and don’t forget to utter all those good wishes and greetings before tossing the salad as high as you can!

This post is written by PureGlutton whose passion for food is tantamount to gluttony. Many would ask "is that passion or is that pure gluttony?" Find out on http://pureglutton.com

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