Those in the know know that Chinese New Year is a fifteen day affair with a busy schedule of festivities. Right in the middle of this extended holiday, on the seventh day, is renri (人日), the day legend says that Nüwa (女娲) created man. On this day, mankind’s birthday, everybody grows one year older, adding yet another year to the nine months in the womb Chinese count towards your age. For the Year of Monkey 2016, renri falls on Sunday, January 14.
For this day, it’s tradition to eat seven-ingredient dishes such as soups (七菜羹) and congee (七菜粥). In Malaysia and Singapore, it is tradition to make a sashimi salad called yusheng (鱼生), also known as Prosperity Toss (捞起) and is the perfect thing to save us from our dumpling and hot pot fatigue.
You can’t just whip up a yusheng with any ol’ things in your kitchen. They have to be symbolic foods with names that are homonyms of something propitious. For example:
Chives, 韭菜 (jiǔcài), which symbolize long life, 天长地久 (tiānchángdìjiǔ);
Garlic, 大蒜 (dàsuàn), which represents wealth, 有的算 (yǒu de suàn) (literally means have something to count);
Lettuce, 生菜 (shēngcài), which represents making money, 生财 (shēngcái);
Celery, 芹菜 (qíncài), which represents being industrious, 勤劳 (qínláo);
Onions, 葱 (cōng), which represents cleverness, 聪明 (cōngmíng);
Coriander (cilantro), 芫荽 (yánsuī), which represents, 缘份 (yuán fèn) destiny that brings people together;
Root vegetables, like radish 萝卜头 (Luóbo tóu) or carrots 红萝卜头 (luóbo tóu), which represent 好彩头 (hǎo cǎitóu) luck; and last but not least
Sashimi, 鱼生, is a homonym of 余升, which means “increase in surplus”.
The tradition of eating sashimi for renri began with fisherman in Guangdong, and the practice of tossing it with other ingredients is believed to have started in Chaozhou (Teochew) and Shantou during the Southern Song Dynasty. It’s not surprising that in modern times, it was revived and popularized in Singapore (then part of Malaysia) where many ethnic Chinese are descended from Chaozhou immigrants who arrived in the 19th century. Watch the co-creators, four chefs known the “Four Heavenly Kings of Cantonese Cuisine” talk about the dish:
The dish is so popular in Singapore that food stalls sell pre-packaged yusheng ingredients and sometimes come pre-made.
As holiday meals are a time for friends and family to get together, the making of a Prosperity Toss is a group activity. After preparing the components, they can be attractively arranged on a plate first (with red envelopes containing spices) or laid out mis en place at the table for the diners pick up with chopsticks one by one to add to the mix. As each ingredient is placed on the plate or added to the mix, everyone shouts an auspicious proclamation. The Moonberry Blog explains what she says with her toss:
Fish – “ 年年有余!” (Nián nián yǒuyú) “Every year has surplus!” for abundance throughout the year. Salmon is a popular fish to use.
Lime or pomelo – “大吉大利!” (Dàjí dàlì) “Great luck and great profit!” for good luck and smooth sailing
Pepper “招财进宝!” (Zhāo cái jìn bǎo) “Come money, enter treasure!” to attract wealth and treasure
Oil – “一本万利!” (Yīběnwànlì) “Make 10,000 times of profit with your capital!” and “财源广进” (Cáiyuán guǎng jìn) “Many sources of wealth!” – the oil is poured all over in a circular motion to symbolize money flowing in from all directions
Shredded carrots – “鸿运当头!” (Hóngyùn dāngtóu) – “Fortune is guiding!” for good fortune
Shredded radish dyed green – ”青春常驻!” (Qīngchūn cháng zhù) “Youth stays around!” for eternal youth
Shredded white radish – “风生水起!” (Fēng shēng shuǐ qǐ) “Wind arises and water rises!” meaning “progress at a fast pace” and “步步高升!” (Bùbùgāo shēng) “Reaching higher level with every step” for prosperity in business and advancement at work
Peanut crumbs – “金银满屋!” (Jīn yín mǎn wū) “House filled with gold and silver!” for wealth
Sesame seeds – “生意兴隆!” (Shēngyì xīnglóng) “Business prosperity!” for a prosperous business
Sweet sauce, like plum sauce – “甜甜蜜蜜!” (Tián tiánmì mì) “May life always be sweet!” for the easy life
Deep-fried flour dough pillows – “满地黄金!” (Mǎn dì huángjīn) “Floor full of gold!” for wealth
Whatever the components of your yusheng, know or make up an appropriate punny proclamation and say them with gusto and conviction to claim and guarantee your heavenly blessings. Once everything has been added, ready your chopsticks, toss, and eat!
Don’t worry about making a mess.
There’s no reason why your yusheng can’t be vegetarian:
Why not sing some of the blessings?
Lead image from Flickr user Umami‘s page. Licensed through Creative Commons. Color and tone edited.