Wednesday, February 13, 2008

7th day of the CNY

Considered to be the most prosperous of all the 15 days of the Chinese New Year, the seventh day, traditionally known as Ren Ri (the Birthday of Man, Day of Man or Man Day, the Day of Humanity) or Yan-Yat (Everyman's Birthday) is considered the day when everyone grows one year older. In early times, on Everyman's Birthday, the urban Chinese based their forecast of the country's condition for the year on the day's weather.

Customs in celebrating this day vary from place to place. For example, Chinese followers of Buddhism also avoid meat on this day. The people from the Fukien province are fond of preparing a special soup with seven health-promoting ingredients to counteract ill-health while those in Chekiang eat Peace Dumplings to bring peace to the country.

In Singapore and Malaysia, Yu Sheng or "raw fish" dish is served instead. People get together to toss the colorful salad and make wishes for continued wealth and prosperity. The belief is that the higher the salad is tossed in the air, the more good fortune can be expected. Long noodles are also eaten to symbolize longevity.

It is believed that Yu Sheng has its origins in southern part of China. Legend has it that a young man and his girlfriend found themselves stranded by bad weather at a temple with nothing to eat but a carp they had caught. Chancing upon a bottle of vinegar, they added this to the stripped carp and found it quite appetizing. Local chefs in Singapore are credited for developing Yu Sheng as we know it today. They named the dish "Lucky Raw Fish" and popularized it as a Chinese New Year delicacy.

Arranged on a large serving plate, the colorful array of ingredients include raw fish, shredded green and white radish, shredded carrots, pickled ginger, crushed nuts and Pomelo. The ingredients are topped with various condiments including deep-fried flour crisps, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon, pepper and other spices.

All at the table would then jointly toss the salad with a generous portion of plum sauce and cooking oil to add sweetness and taste.

Rituals and Meanings
Yu Sheng plays on the homonyms where Yu means "fish" but enunciated appropriately, it also means "abundance"; and Sheng means literally "raw" but enunciated appropriately, it means "life". Thus Yu Sheng implies "abundance of wealth and long life". In Cantonese it is known as Lo Sheng with Lo also meaning "tossing up good fortune". The tossing action is called Lo Hei, which means to "rise" (Hei), again a reference to a thriving business and thus its popularity with businessmen during the Chinese New Year.

All the different parts of the salad are brought to the table in separate plates, and been mixed in front of you, in a certain order and with some greetings.

Here is the recipe for you to do at home

  • Step 1: People are all at the table and offer Chinese New Year greetings.
    Words: Gong Xi Fa Cai (Congratulations for your wealth) or Wan Shi Ru Yi (May all your wishes be fulfilled).

  • Step 2: In the salad, add the Fish, symbolizing abundance or excess through the year, is added.
    Words: Nian Nian You Yu ("Nian Nian You Yu" means "there's some fish every year", but fish in Chinese (Yu) shares the same sound with the word 'extra' or 'leftover'; so the true meaning serving the dish really is: "there is some (fish) leftover from the previous year, every year") and You Yu You Sheng (Don’t know the translation).

  • Step 3: The pomelo is added over the fish, adding both luck and auspicious value.
    Words: Da Ji Da Li (to be auspicious; a wish for favorable circumstances).

  • Step 4: Pepper is then dashed over the ingredients in the hope of attracting more money and valuables.
    Words: Zhao Cai Jin Bao (usher the good fortune for the new year).

  • Step 5: Then oil is poured out, circling the ingredients to increase all profits 10,000 times and encouraging money to flow in from all directions
    Words: Yi Ben Wan Li (for a flourishing business) and Cai Yuan Guang Jin (money keeps rolling in).

  • Step 6: Carrots are added to the fish indicating blessings of good luck.
    Words: Hong Yun Dang Tou (Good luck upon your head).

  • Step 7: Then the shredded green radish is placed on the fish symbolizing eternal youth.
    Words: Qing Chun Chang Zhu (Eternal youth, or full of youthful vigor).

  • Step 8: After which the shredded white radish is added - prosperity in business and promotion at work.
    Words: Feng Sheng Shui Qi (prosperity in business) and Bu Bu Gao Sheng (Makes Steady Progress, a wish for progress in their career).

  • Step 9: The condiments are finally added. First, peanut crumbs are dusted on the dish symbolizing a household filled with gold and silver. As an icon of longevity, peanuts also symbolize eternal youth.
    Words: Jin Yin Man Wu (to obtain abundant wealth for the household).

  • Step 10: Sesame seeds quickly follow symbolizing a flourishing business.
    Words: Sheng Yi Xing Long (one more time, for good business).

  • Step 11: Deep-fried flour crisps in the shape of golden pillows is then added with wishes that literally the whole floor would be filled with gold.
    Words: Pian Di Huang Jin (May gold pile at your feet).

  • Step 12: All toss the salad an auspicious 7 times with loud shouts of Lo Hei and other auspicious New Year wishes.
    Words: Lo Hei which is Cantonese for "tossing luck".

The ingredients mixed by pushing them toward the centre, an encouragement to push on the good luck of all at the table.

In early Singapore, restaurants in Chinatown would deliver Yu Sheng direct to customers. Their delivery assistants would balance the ingredients on a wooden tray placed on their heads. One serving would be placed on a pedestal dish and it would be covered with a conical tin, with the condiments wrapped like a red envelope or red packet. Young children were not encouraged to consume it as it was thought to trigger epilepsy. The dish was popular with the Cantonese, although the Teochews ate a simpler version where raw fish is dipped in sweet sauce.

Today, in more innovative and more expensive versions, salmon is used or is replaced with lobster and abalone. The vegetables include odd additions like the kiwi fruit, its jade-like green a symbol of prosperity. Various versions are also served at restaurants from Japanese Yu Sheng which have thick slices of sashimi to even Italian Yu Sheng which have Lasagna instead of noodles!