Lunar New Year Yu Sheng dish

This being the 15th and last day of the Lunar New Year, I thought it’d be good to talk about the wonderful dish of Yu Sheng, Yee Sang, Lo Hei, or whatever else you may call it.

To me, it’s always been a special treat to have the dish, best described as a raw fish salad, that has significantly more salad than raw fish. So much such that the fish is hardly discernable, unless it is not absolutely fresh.

Traditionally, Yu Sheng is not eaten till the 7th day of new year. So you could only have it 8 days out of 365 days. How special was that?

Not today. Even in Malaysia, they’ve sold out and now you can get Yu Sheng as soon as restaurants re-open for business, after a short break off for the new year.

In Singapore, there’s a big deal made with the Lo Hei. The waitress chucks a big dish on the table, opens up condiments and for each one, good wishes are uttered. Some waitresses are more into it and when they’re enthusiastic, it’s fun to watch them.

Then, everyone pokes their chopsticks in and tosses the salad about as they utter well wishes and hopes for the new year: job promotions, bonuses, a healthy stock market, good 4D numbers, children posted to the gifted stream etc etc.

Some even stand up to toss the salad higher, believing the higher it is tossed, the more their wishes will come true. In reality, all that leaves is a lot of wasted Yu Sheng outside the plate that no one can eat.

The tossing of Yu Sheng appears to be a great equalizer. Bosses who give their employees have their chopsticks in the same plate as their subordinates. Grandparents, parents, sons, daughters, all.

As a former Malaysian, we never uttered these things. The dish is delivered like any other dish, without fanfare. And we know what the tossing is for – mixing up the salad well – a task for a cook, that has been packaged as a fun activity for diners. At the end of the day, Yu Sheng is just another food that should taste good. Luck or no luck.

In my family, we toss quietly. Any utterances are done directly, to the person to whom it’s intended, but addessed in the third person, like “Hope [fill name] finds a job” or “Hope [fill name]meets a nice boy” or “Hope [fill name] goes to church”. And that’s tossed amongst other generic, good pay, good health wishes, that are said more loudly and to others amongst the group.

This year, I had the opportunity of going to Kuala Lumpur during the new year and sampled some Yu Sheng at the Oversea Restaurant in Imbi Road and at the Royal Selangor Club.

Before I left Singapore, I had Yu Sheng at Westlake Restaurant and when I returned, I had take-away Yu Sheng from Ban Leong Wah Hoe Seafood Restaurant.

I also had some Yu Sheng at Pekin Restaurant in Johor Bahru.

In general, I felt that the KL version was more focused on increasing crunchiness to the dish. They included additional strips of coloured crackers, that added to give a more peanut-ty taste.

Pekin, in JB, had an interesting interpretation. They dumped the radish for turnip. Altogether, this created a much drier dish, that was appropriately moistened by just enough sauce.

As I watched the waitress, now promoted, temporarily to Yu-Sheng-dish-assembler at Oversea Restaurant, I realised this about Yu Sheng.

It is fast food designed to relieve pressure on the kitchen. Everything is prepped before hand. Zero cooking required. It is not even assembled by the chef, who is busy preparing main dishes.

The dish is served as an appetizer, delivered to hungry diners really fast. During a busy period, this gives the kitchen breathing space, between getting the order and delivery. The kitchen doesn’t have to sacrifice any of its cooks to do this.

All you need is someone to assemble the ingredients on a plate.

Is it that simple? Can anyone really do a good job putting the ingredients in appropriate portions to still retain the balance of taste and flavour that the chef intended? Can the chef train a non-cook well enough so that his signature taste is still in the dish without him having a hand in it?

Unfortunately, the answer, is no.

As the waitress in Oversea Restaurant poured the plum sauce, she paused and asked if it was enough. This was a strange question for something so crucial – the sauce. The dish should still be controlled by the chef. Portions should be appropriate. How would we, the diner know how much is sufficient?

The raw fish I had from Westlake Restaurant had way too much five spice powder. And the fish from Ban Leong Wah Hoe’s Yu Sheng, was not fresh and there was an overpowering taste of limes and preserved orange skin.

Yu Sheng is all about balance of flavours. Not too sweet, not to sour. Spices, preserved peels and radishes in the wrong proportion tip the dish from amazing to awful.

You can embellish Yu Sheng all you want, class it up with abalone, throw in some artificial sharks fins, you cannot get away from the basic taste.

Not all who are tasked with putting the dish together can handle this intricate balance. Not all realise just how important their job is in this period. Especially since this is the first lasting impression of the restaurant for the new year.

But ultimately, I think the blame still falls on the chef, because he retains ultimate control on taste. And if he cannot train a non-cook to do this, then his task is to carefully weigh and pack every single item, so that it is truly an assembly job when it comes to serving the dish.

Then Yu Sheng can truly become the ultimate fast food dish for the new year – fast and more importantly, consistent and tasty.

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