Chinese New Year festivities often involve the practice of many traditions – one of which is the tossing of the yu sheng for good fortune. “Lo Hei” in Cantonese, where 捞 “lo” (literally mixing) means “tossing up good fortune”, refers to the ritual adopted in Singapore of tossing the yu sheng and saying of auspicious phrases before eating it. It is popularly believed that the higher the toss, the better your prospects and fortune in the year ahead.
Before the tossing begins, the dish needs to be prepared, usually by one individual who adds the ingredients one by one in a specific order, while the reciting wishes of luck and prosperity evoked by the names of the ingredients used. With the plate placed in the middle, diners stand around the table to toss the ingredients whilst exchanging blessings and words of prosperity.
The yu sheng dish is made up of thin slices of raw fish and shredded vegetables which are mixed with a variety of seasonings and condiments. Traditionally a simple dish with humble ingredients, the recipe has evolved over time and now comprises a wide variety of ingredients with auspicious meanings.
Origins of eating sliced raw fish
The practice of eating raw fish slices is thought to date back more than 2,000 years, with the earliest known written documentation of the dish tracing back to 823 BCE during the Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE -256 BCE). During the Han dynasty (206 BCE- 220 CE), it became so popular that Chinese scholars such as Cao Zhi (曹植) wrote poems praising the dish. Towards the end of the Qing dynasty (1889 CE- 1912 CE), it almost disappeared in China and its consumption became limited to southern parts of Guangzhou and Chaozhou.
Fishermen along the coast of Guangzhou in cities such as Jiangmen and Shunde used to celebrate the 7th day of Lunar New Year or 人日 (day of humanity), which according to Chinese folklore, was the day of creation. This day was traditionally celebrated by them feasting on their catches. The dish that the fishermen ate, unlike the later Singaporean variant, was humble: thin slices of raw common carp mixed with soy sauce, vinegar, peanut oil, pickled shallots and shredded vegetables. They called it yu sheng because the name played on the homonyms ‘yu’ which can mean both ‘鱼’ (fish) and ‘余’ (abundance) as well as ‘sheng’ which, depending on enunciation, can mean ‘raw’ or ‘life’. As such, yu sheng simultaneously means “raw fish” and “abundance of wealth and long life”.
Practice in Singapore
From its origins as a simple raw fish dish, the recipe has gone through a series of transformations since the 1930s. The dish was brought to Singapore in the late 19th century by the migration of Cantonese and Teochew peoples from China. Because of this, till the 1960s, there were traditionally two versions of yu sheng consumed in Singapore – Cantonese and Teochew.
The Cantonese version, known as Jiangmen Yu Sheng, was eaten on the 7th day of the Lunar New Year and consisted of a simple fish and vegetable salad with salt, sugar, and vinegar. The Teochew version, called Husay, was eaten throughout the New Year period and had fewer ingredients: dried fish wrapped in lettuce that was coated in sesame seeds, and then dipped in sauce.
The “Four Heavenly Kings”, n.d. Digital image. Dragon Phoenix Restaurant, Singapore, Accessed April 1, 2016.
Four chefs in Singapore were responsible for the contemporary dish that is known originally as qicai yusheng (七彩鱼生; “seven-coloured raw fish salad”). In 1964, while trying to create a new signature dish to attract more customers to their restaurant, four chefs (known affectionately as the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’) Lao Yuke Pui, Than Mui Kai Yu, Hooi Kok Wai, and chef Sin Leung, reinvented the dish and served it at their newly opened Lai Wah restaurant. Their aim was to improve the fragrance, colour, and flavour of yu sheng, while also giving it texture and depth through the addition of peanuts and flour crisps.
The original dish used raw grass carp – a freshwater species which led to hygiene concerns and it was later changed to wolf herring or ikan pedang (mackerel), which were safer to eat. Nowadays, it is also common to use salmon, lobster, or even abalone to replace the raw fish. More colourful ingredients were added to make the dish more festive, adding condiments such as plum sauce and making portions bigger, which in turn meant that more people were able to share the dish together.
The four chefs claimed that the Lo Hei practice was not invented by them, but was a result of spontaneous reaction of customers to the dish they created. This became a new way of eating yu sheng. It was not readily accepted until the 1970s when younger diners embraced it. From then on, this version of yu sheng recipe soared and spread overseas.
The 12 Stages of Lo Hei
Yu Sheng placed on table, diners gather around.
恭喜发财 (Gong Xi Fa Cai) meaning “Congratulations for your wealth”;
万事如意 (Wan Shi Ru Yi) meaning, “May all your wishes be fulfilled”.
Raw fish is added, symbolising abundance throughout the year.
年年有余 (Nian Nian Youyu) meaning, “Every year got more” which plays on the Mandarin word for fish sounding like ‘abundance’.
Pomelo or lime added.
大吉大利 (Da Ji Da Li) translating to, “good luck and great prosperity”.
Spices added to symbolise greater prosperity and fortune.
招财进宝 (Zhao Cai Jin Bao) meaning, “May you attract wealth and treasures”.
Oil and plum sauce are poured over ingredients, symbolising an increase in profits and a flow of money in all directions.
一本万利 (Yi Ben Wan Li) meaning “Make 10,000 times of profit with your capital”;
财源广进 (Cai Yuan Guang Jin) meaning, “May you have numerous sources of wealth”.
Shredded carrot added, indicating blessings of good luck as the first character of carrot (鸿) also sounds like the Chinese character for red.
鸿运当头 (Hong Yun Dang Tou) translating to, “Good luck is approaching”.
Green radish is added, symbolising eternal youth as the first character (青) also sounds like the Chinese character for green.
青春常驻 (Qing Chun Chang Zhu) meaning, “Forever young”.
Shredded white radish added.
风生水起 (Feng Sheng Shui Qi) meaning, “Progress at a fast pace”;
步步高升 (Bu Bu Gao Sheng) which means, “Reaching higher level with each step”.
Peanut crumbs are poured over.
金银满屋 (Jin Yin Man Wu) meaning, “I hope that your house will be filled with gold and silver.”
Sesame seeds sprinkled over.
生意兴隆 (Sheng Yi Xing Long) translates to, “Wishing you prosperity for the business.”
Deep-fried flour crisps in the shape of golden pillows are then added.
满地黄金 (Man Di Huang Jin) literally translating to, “May the whole floor be filled with gold.”
All diners at the table then stand up and proceed to toss the shredded ingredients into the air with chopsticks whilst saying wishes out loud or simply yelling “Lo hei, Lo hei!” It is believed that the higher the toss of the Yu Sheng, the greater the prosperity for the following year.
捞起 (Lo Hei) which is Cantonese for “tossing luck”.