If you’re from Malaysia or Singapore, chances are that you know what yee sang is. Also known as yushang or lohei, it is a traditional Chinese dish. This special meal is a symbol of prosperity, good luck, and all things auspicious, comprised of shredded vegetables, crackers, nuts, fish and other ingredients.
All you need to know about this traditional dish!
The dish is then mixed and tossed together with a special sauce, usually a sweet plum sauce to give it a distinctive fruity tinge. Eaten during Chinese New Year, it’s common to hear the phrase ‘lou yee sang’, which means – quite literally – tossing yee sang.
This big dish of arranged ingredients is usually brought out as an appetiser, to begin a traditional full course Chinese New Year meal. Families gather around tables, chopsticks hovering over the one singular dish in the middle, ready to toss the array of shredded vegetables and fish with joyful exclamations and wishes.
They say that the higher you toss, the more luck you would have! This brief process usually ends with a colourful mess overflowing from the dish and scattered all over the tabletop.
How did yee sang come to being?
Lets take a few steps back in Chinese history. According to Chinese legends, a goddess named Nu Wa spent 6 days creating animals out of earth and mud, while on the 7th day she created what we know now as humanity.
This day is called Ren Ri (quite literally, the day of mankind), and to celebrate this day, Chinese people enjoy yee sang, which comprises of 7 symbolic ingredients. However, the modern version is that immigrants from China passed their love of fish to locals, teaching them recipes involving raw fish in fresh salads.
It started out as a poor man’s meal, as they made do with their own home-grown vegetables to eat with fish. They chopped up vegetables and mixed them with simple dressings such as plum sauce, vegetable oil, salt and pepper.
In the 1920s, a man named Loke Ching Fatt came to Malaya and set up his own catering business in Seremban, cooking Chinese banquets for weddings and other special occasions. He was very successful, until the Japanese Occupation put his business into difficult times. Not many people could afford to hold banquets, however he and his family managed to survive.
After the war when business was still hard to obtain, he remembered that the Cantonese had a tradition of eating raw fish on Ren Ri, and decided to revive the tradition on Chinese New Year. Instead of using traditional methods to prepare it however, he created a more elaborate recipe that involved over 30 ingredients! It was a colorful arrangement of carious Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien traditions, along with his own creative additions. Its specialty was Loke’s signature sweet and tangy sauce.
His business prospered and he was usually overwhelmed with orders. However, he was a perfectionist, and expected each of his Yee Sang dish to have the same taste and texture. There was no free-styling in ingredients and sauces like how people ate it in China. Eventually, people got tired of waiting for the servers to mix the dish up, and used their own chopsticks to start mixing – and that’s where the tradition of lo hei comes from!
It turned out to be so popular that half a decade later, the Cantonese community had made it an annual tradition. Now, it’s a dish that can be found throughout Southeast Asia – notably Malaysia and Singapore – during Chinese New Year.
Even though it was tradition to eat it on the 7th day of Chinese New Year, it’s now pretty normal to eat it on any day of the new year, as many times as you like!
What exactly is yee sang?
Although there are many variations of yee sang, the key ingredients are usually similar. Raw fish – usually salmon – symbolises abundance through the year, alongside the phrase ‘年年有餘 (Nian Nian You Yu)’ as the word for ‘fish’ sounds like ‘abundance’. Next would be pomelo fruit, which is added with the fish to signify luck.
Spices like pepper or five spice powder are sprinkled on, to signify the hope of attracting wealth. Then oil is added, traditionally poured in a circle to encourage money to come from every direction for the year.
Next are carrots, shredded to indicate wishes and blessings of luck. Shredded green radish is added with the carrots, symbolising eternal youth as the Chinese character for ‘green’ also sounds like ‘youth’. Finally, shredded white radish makes up the biggest portion of the dish, symbolising prosperity and promotion in business.
After the main ingredients are assembled, it’s time to add the condiments!
There’s usually a variety of condiments, but the most common one would be adding peanut crumbs first, as it symbolises a household filled with gold and silver. Next would be roasted sesame seeds, mixed with the white radish to continue prosperity for business.
Finally, a favourite among all, deep-fried crisps are added to symbolise a gold-filled floor. It’s common to use dumpling skin or gyoza skin to make these crisps. Before the traditional tossing takes place, a sauce traditionally made of a mixture of plum, sesame oil, kumquat paste and rice vinegar is drizzled over the dish, providing a sweet-sour taste to the mix.
For those curious, the final result after mixing is a crunchy texture from the shredded vegetables and crisps, with the soft, sweet tanginess of the raw fish and sauce. It’s an interesting taste for those who have never tried it!
Where do you get yee sang from?
If you’re in Malaysia or Singapore, there are ready-made yee sang tubs available at local supermarkets! You can even add your own condiments like fresh fish, fruits and other vegetables.
Most Chinese restaurants also offer yee sang as a limited-time menu option, even some other restaurant chains like Sushi King have their own yee sang. There are also recipes available if you’re feeling like you’re up to the challenge of making your own!
We at Butterkicap wish you a very Happy Chinese New Year, and we hope that you get to try out an abundance of delicious yee sang this new year!