In Malaysia and Singapore in particular, yee sang is a set piece dish at a Chinese New Year feast table – always the opener to the marathon of eating, presented beautifully before it all descends into mayhem.
I’m going to ‘fess up here that when I first heard yee sang described to me as a child, I wasn’t that excited about it. I mean, a whole bunch of vegetables tossed together, and on top of that, raw fish? Why wouldn’t you cook the fish first? So uncivilised! (Yeah, I’d never even heard of sashimi back then).
What I absolutely did sign up for though was for the tossing. The whole family gathered round a table, chopsticks at the ready, competing to see who could get the most hei-ght on their lo (sorry) without spilling the whole thing all over the table, all while shouting good wishes for the coming new year at the top of our voices – what’s not to like? The only time we’re allowed – encouraged, even – to make a mess and play with our food!
And then I tasted it. The crunch of the cornflakes or crispy wonton skins the first sensation. Then the rich creaminess of peanut and sesame, the lightly sour pickles, the freshness of the vegetables, sweet and tangy sauce, fragrant oil, and the fish – oh the fish – oily morsels of delight, slipping down your throat easily. Why WOULD you cook it first? I couldn’t get enough.
Having lived in London for the last 16 years, I’d gotten used to my homemade versions of roughly chopped assorted vegetables, shop-bought pickles, and smoked salmon, or sashimi grade fish if I could get it. It was good, and good fun, and I highly recommend you try it (Kelvin Tan has an excellent recipe over at https://www.instagram.com/p/CLBzryhHCQO). But this year has been my first opportunity to try Laksamania’s version – freshly-prepared, house-made pickles, their own sauce, every ingredient carefully balanced and meticulously prepared, and I was instantly transported back to my childhood.
Yee Sang is a dish built almost entirely on the Chinese love of homophones and symbolic gestures. You can read on below if you’re interested in some of the meanings behind the ingredients and the actions of a yee sang! (I apologise that this is not a very complete list, and also for inaccuracies – I am no expert – but if you know some that haven’t been listed here, do let me know!)
Green Radish 青春常驻 (qīng chūn cháng zhù) Everlasting youth
White Radish 风生水起 (fēng shēng shuǐ qǐ) Speedy success
Carrot 鸿运当头 (hóng yùn dāng tóu) Opportunities come knocking
Lime 大吉大利 (dà jí dà lì) Great luck and smooth sailing
Sesame Seed 生意兴隆 (sheng yi xing long) Business prosperity
Peanuts 金银满屋 (jin yin man wu) A household full of gold and silver
Fresh Salmon – The eponymous ingredient. The name “Yee Sang” literally means “raw fish”, but is also symbolic of
White Pepper 招财进宝 (zhāo cái jìn bǎo) Attract wealth and receive treasures
Five Spice Powder 五福臨門 (wǔ fú lín mén) May all good fortune be upon you and your family
Yee Shang Sauce – Traditionally made with plum sauce, and on the sweeter side. 甜甜蜜蜜 (tian tian mi mi) May life always be sweet.
The sauce and oil are poured over the salad in a circular motion, symbolising wealth and good fortune coming in from all directions, before the tossing commences. There are again, common set-phrases to use, but it often devolves into ever-louder shouts of “HUAAT AHHH!” (“Prosper!”, in the Hokkien dialect)
Here is a link for further reading (and my main reference!)
The Wikipedia article on it is another good starting place.
As with all customs, every family has its own practices and individualisms – feel free to tell us about them in the comments below. I’d love to hear about some of yours!