This Wednesday will be the seventh day of the Lunar New Year, also known as “Ren Ri”—the universal birthday of man. Celebrating families have been feasting for an entire week on a myriad of goodies, but the one festive staple is Yu Sheng—a pun on the Chinese terms for "abundance and growth" which literally means “raw fish.”
Created by the four "Heavenly Culinary Kings" in Singapore some 40 years ago, this salad dish consists of 27 ingredients—each with its own symbolic meaning—tossed in a dressing of plum sauce, kumquat paste, rice vinegar, peanut and sesame oils. The shredded carrot and daikon radish that form the base of the salad will "see your fortunes rise with the wind and tide." Ground pepper and five-spice powder, considered the "spices of life,” promise good luck in the year ahead. The oils in the dressing will “make all things go according to your wishes," and the strips of fried wonton skins (think Chinese croutons) that adorn the salad will "pave the ground you tread on with gold.” Other ingredients include cured jellyfish ribbons, pickled ginger, sun-dried yuzu, crushed peanuts, and last but not least, raw fish. Symbolizing "good tidings in abundance,” the raw fish of choice used to be mackerel, but these days, sashimi-grade salmon is offered. Pricier variants may boast lobster, abalone or scallop sashimi, while the vegetarian ones my grandma buys from the temple substitute strips of tender, young coconut flesh.
It’s a really showy salad because each ingredient is added to the dish at the table, with the server calling out Chinese idioms and "auspicious sayings" throughout. The salad is then communally tossed with chopsticks, with each diner striving to lift their chopsticks as high as possible—the higher the toss, the greater the luck!
While the original Yu Sheng remains popular among the Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, variations of it are common. A Thai version might consist of "shredded papaya, mango, cashew nuts, lemongrass, crisp dried cuttlefish, and raw spiced catfish in a tamarind sauce," while an Italian version would riff off fish carpaccio with "tomatoes, pickled onions, French beans, olives, and grapefruit."
Oh, and the reason I call it a "washing machine salad"? The julienned vegetables need to be relatively dry so the salad doesn’t get soggy. But restaurants make Yu Sheng in such vast quantities that a regular salad spinner would hardly suffice, hence a need for a washing machine exclusively devoted to spin-drying the greens. I think it’s brilliant.