Recent New York City transplant Becky Cheang travelled back to her native Singapore for Chinese New Year. She shares the beautiful art of preparing Prosperity Salad for a tasty toss of good fortune this holiday season.
Chinese New Year in Singapore is like Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s rolled into one, with triple the food, none of the presents, and spread out over three weeks. It can be a little overwhelming. The weeks of complicated preparations needed, the wrangling to get grandparents and the eldest kid (me) to help organize everything, and so many traditions to observe. I mean, I don’t want to gravely insult my grandmother by wearing blue on the first day of Chinese New Year. My memory has to work overtime, and I end up wishing I had Minority Report-like technology so I could scan an unfamiliar face and immediately identify which twice-removed-cousin’s grand-aunt’s son-in-law is giving me $2 in a red packet.
Of course, the highlight of Chinese New Year, as with any proper celebration, is the food. If you think you overeat at Thanksgiving, you might be interested to note that my family is still trying to get through our last box of Chinese New Year treats in August, seven months after the actual holiday.
Of the countless dishes we eat during the season, my favorite will always be yu sheng 魚生, also known as Prosperity Salad. Yes, my favorite thing to eat during the biggest holiday season of the year is a salad.
But it’s not just a salad. Yu (魚) means “fish,” one of the main ingredients in the otherwise vegetarian dish. Yu is also a homonym for “abundance” (餘). Sheng (生) means “life.” The salad carries good fortune and wishes for abundant life, which is why businessmen were the first to spread the tradition into Malaysia and Singapore. The salad contains more than twenty ingredients, including shredded vegetables (carrots, turnip, radish), raw fish (usually salmon), pomelo, pickled ginger, crushed nuts, spices, sauces, and crackers. My mom recalls first having it when she was in primary school when my grandparents had just started a business.
Yu sheng is traditionally tossed with family or friends on the seventh day of Chinese New Year, ren ri, which means “everybody’s birthday.” (Yes, I get to celebrate my birthday twice a year.) But for as long as I remember, my family has been tossing it on the first and last day (the 15th) of Chinese New Year. As I grew older, I started tossing with friends. This meant during any given year, I would yu sheng at least three times. My record one year was eight.
When I was a kid, I loved yu sheng because it was a rare time my parents not only allowed but in fact encouraged me to make a mess. According to superstition, the more the salad overflows from the plate, the more your abundance overflows in life.
If it isn’t clear by now, you don’t eat yu sheng, you do yu sheng. This is food as participatory sport. Traditionally, there’s an order to preparing the salad, with auspicious Chinese idioms that have to be said as their corresponding ingredients are presented, but my family was never particular about this. We just dive straight into the toss, gathering around a big plate where all the ingredients are laid out. The eldest in the group dives in with his or her chopsticks first, and then everyone joins in, tossing the salad as high as possible while shouting out Chinese idioms of well-wishes and good fortune.
This is why I love doing yu sheng so much. It’s an occasion for the whole family to gather together to shout out wishes, dreams, plans, and hopes for the year ahead. When I moved to New York City from Singapore two years ago, I was unsure how I’d handle the holiday without my family. But I was thrilled to discover that restaurants in North America offer it every season to eat in or take out, if you know where to look. I bought a set last year and introduced it to my friends. And, well, we’ve had a good year. I’m back home for this New Year, but no matter where I may be, mom will always throw in some well wishes for me.
Chinatown in Singapore The vicious monster Nian once tormented villagers every winter around the Lunar New Year until the villagers learned what terrified him: fire, loud sounds, and the colour red. He’s since been tamed, but firecrackers, bright red lanterns, and all the decorations in Chinatown remind Chinese they’ve survived another Nian (a homonym for “year”) and that life has so much worth celebrating.