I came back to our table at the hawker centre with my order on a tray.
An eye-pleasing assortment of ingredients was almost spilling out of the pink plate. Tumbles of thin carrot and radish ribbons topped with coriander, pomelo, crushed peanuts, spring onion, sesame seeds, pepper, and five spice powder, neat piles of pickled ginger, golden pillow crackers, some limes, sliced for easy squeezing, a sachet of plum sauce, a tiny tub of sesame oil, cured jellyfish, and a free serving of konjac slices, as a substitute for raw fish.
It was a salad—not the kind you’re thinking of and not something we usually find in a hawker centre.
This was the light lunch I needed as I wasn’t particularly famished that afternoon. My husband had ordered Hainanese satay for himself and our two young daughters.
Yusheng, a colorful raw fish salad usually comprising raw salmon, crunchy crackers, and shredded vegetables, drizzled in a sweet-and-sour sauce is traditionally eaten on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year but increasingly enjoyed anytime—and many times—during the 15-day festive period.
In Singapore, yusheng is a Lunar New Year staple, as revered as steamboat and the family elders whose presence grace the passing of another year together, enjoyed in homes and bustling Chinese restaurants.
I admit half the fun is in the ritual of tossing the salad. Some might even say that’s the best part.
As everyone crowds around the dining table at home, chopsticks in hand, elders are given seats closest to the yusheng platter, young children stand on chairs while adults find spots to squeeze in, waiting for the cue to start tossing amid good-natured banter.
The aim is to toss the salad as high as you can while shouting out auspicious wishes at the same time. In that prudent anticipation of the mess to come, some mothers wisely line the table with disposable plastic sheets or newspapers.
Chaos typically ensue, in a good way, as young and old scramble to toss the colorful strands, ushering in the new year with well wishes for health, wealth, business opportunities, babies, luck, good grades, and marriages.
For once a messy table is a good sign, and playing with food is not frowned upon. Everyone grabs a serving of the remaining salad on the platter, sometimes even the excess on table.
That afternoon, there was no festive gathering on the cards. It was just the four of us, getting a late lunch at a hawker centre on one of the last days of the Lunar New Year.
Restrictive Covid-19 measures were still in place in Singapore, disallowing groups of more than five vaccinated individuals to dine together.
After years of indifference, I’m finally starting to appreciate yusheng’s flavors and textures. This was the first time I’ve bought yusheng because I craved it.
In this raw fish salad, each ingredient has its place, along with a corresponding auspicious phrase usually uttered when assembling the salad, playing on homophones, that revolve—unsurprisingly—around luck, prosperity and abundance. For instance, fish symbolizes surplus and carrot, luck.
Over the years, we’ve seen an evolution in yusheng due to growing affluence, personal preferences as well as recent health scares.
My mom, who has never liked raw fish, usually adds canned abalone and Atlantic surf clams to our yusheng, splurge-worthy ingredients for a once-a-year feast.
Yusheng traditionally features raw wolf herring but demand for the saltwater fish reduced drastically after more than 100 people in Singapore were infected by an aggressive strain of Group B Streptococcus in 2015 after consuming raw freshwater fish.
Today, most Singaporeans favor salmon for yusheng as well as non-raw fish yusheng options like jellyfish, lobster, Wagyu beef, and vegan fish made of konjac.
Festive connotations aside, the medley of various ingredients works well together, refreshingly tart, sweet and savory with enough crunch and chew to satisfy the fussiest palates.
A small number of hawker stalls already sell yusheng once a year during the festive Lunar New Year period, making the dish more accessible than before. Their yusheng even comes in single servings.
Some evolutions are necessary to preserve traditional foods and find new fans.
I know I’ll always opt for a light summer salad boasting distinctively East Asian flavors brought to Singapore by Cantonese immigrants and transformed by local chefs over one invented by suits to sell more salad bowls.
Just like how the dish has slowly changed with the times, I think we can take it a step further and make yusheng more readily available. I’m sure I’m not the only one wishing to eat yusheng in small portions throughout the year.
We’ll save the tossing and fancy restaurant yusheng for the big noisy celebratory reunions with my extended family next Lunar New Year, hopefully with the pandemic behind us.