Yee Sang is a staple food that everyone in Malaysia loves to serve. If you live in Malaysia, China, Singapore, or Indonesia, you are probably familiar with this traditional dish. To Malaysians, it is more than just a festive dish to enjoy on Chinese New Year celebration but a dish that symbolizes prosperity for the whole year. Read on and find out how this legendary CNY dish becomes an integral part of the festivity and Malaysian culture.
Yee Sang, the History Behind the Colorful Dish
What is Yee Sang?
Yee Sang is a traditional dish that contains thin slices of vegetables, specifically pickled vegetables, and raw fish. Each ingredient used in the dish symbolizes an important Yee Sang meaning.
Carrots represent riches; leeks symbolize new ideas; radish is for eternal youth and prosperity; cucumbers mean good returns on investments; papaya conveys being the best; plum sauce means a year of sweetness. The star ingredient is the raw salmon, which expresses prosperity. Over the years, people customize the dish using other types of seafood. Drizzled on top of the salmon or seafood is the lime juice or pomelo juice, which represents profit and good luck.
The dish is not complete without the sesame seeds for health and flourishing business; peanut crumbs for long life; and pok choy crackers for gold or fortune. To make the dish tasty, a sprinkle of powder of five spices serves as the final touch. The five flavors signify wealth, health, kindness, family, and happiness.
Where did the dish originate?
The word “Yee Sang” came from the Cantonese words “yee” which means prosperity fish, and “sang”, which means raw. Symbolically, it denotes growing prosperity.
It was the Cantonese Loke Ching Fatt who introduced the traditional raw fish dish to Malaysia in the 1940s. As he aimed to revive his restaurant business after the harsh Japanese period, he decided to reinvent the traditional Cantonese Yusheng and created the recipe. Meanwhile, the idea was meant for his restaurant business. Fortunately, the Malaysian customers loved the dish, making it a part of the CNY tradition and festivity.
Originally, the dish had 30 different ingredients, and each one added color, savor, and taste to the dish. Loke’s Yee Sang, however, was unique because of his signature sauce – the sweet and tangy plum sauce. He called his recipe Sup Kum Yee Sang (Tenth Sense Yee Sang) based on Buddhist beliefs.
When did it become a traditional CNY dish?
Loke’s dish became popular in the 1960s so that many other restaurants in Peninsular Malaysia served the dish for CNY festivities. In fact, it spread even to the neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.
In addition, the dish became the main part of the Lou Hei tradition. It is the high tossing of the dish while shouting in high spirits their auspicious wishes “Lou Hei” during the Chinese New Year celebration. Because of this, they called the dish Lou Hei Yee Sang or Prosperity Toss.
It is a tradition in Malaysia to toss these colorful vegetables as high as possible. They believed that the higher the toss of the sliced vegetables and the messier the table gets, the better fortune to expect for the year ahead.
What to Say When Tossing the Yee Sang Salad
Each ingredient added to the dish is symbolic of something positive. At a restaurant, the chef who prepares the plate of Yee Sang recites well wishes one after another ingredient. If it is not the chef, it will be the waiter who typically recites the wishes. If the family chooses to do it at home with their own version of homemade Yee Sang Prosperity Toss, they also recite the ritual.
Here are the phrases to recite while adding each ingredient to the serving plate:
- Say “da ji da li” (大吉大利) (Wishing you an abundance of good luck) as you squeeze lime over the dish.
- Say “nian nian you yu” (年年有余) (May you always have more than enough) as you add the fish/salmon or seafood on.
- Say “cai yuan guang jin” (财源广进) (May your money increase ten thousand fold) as you pour the dressing oil in a circular motion.
- Say “tian tian mi mi” (甜甜蜜蜜) *(May everything in your life is as sweet as honey) as you drizzle the plum sauce.
- Say “wu gu feng shou” (五谷丰收) (May lots of wealth come in your life) as you add on the sesame seeds and nuts.
- Say “jin yu man tang” (金玉满堂) (May your home be filled with wealth and treasure) when you top off the dish with fried crisps.
Everyone around the table stands up to proceed with the tossing. Using their chopsticks, they toss the sliced ingredients high enthusiastically into the air while saying loudly their greetings and auspicious wishes.
Some wishes everyone can say while tossing:
- “gong xi fa cai” (恭喜发财) – May you be rich and wealthy.
- “shen ti jian kang” (身体健康) – Wish you good health.
- “wan shi ru yi” (万事如意) – May everything be as you wish.
- lou hei” – Move upwards.
- “huat ahhhh” – To grow, to prosper, to produce more.
Homemade Yee Sang
- ½ packet dumpling wrappers
- 1½ lbs taro (peeled) (675g)
- 4 to 5 drops each of red and green food coloring
- Sufficient vegetable oil for deep frying
- 1 small jicama / bangkuang (peeled) (about 1lb/450g)
- 8 oz daikon (peeled) (225g)
- 2 medium carrots (peeled)
- ½ small pomelo (peeled and broken into small chunks)
- ½ cup cilantro (stems removed)
- 10 to 12 slices pickled ginger (cut into strips)
- ½ tsp five-spice powder
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
- 1 packet smoked salmon/lox (3 oz/85g)
- ½ lime or 1 tbsp lime juice
- ⅓ cup hoisin sauce (80ml)
- ⅓ cup apricot or plum jam (80ml)
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 tbsp water
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- Cut wonton wrappers into strips.
- Shred taro coarsely using a grater. Divide them into two. Color one portion with red food coloring and the other with green food coloring. Keep them separate.
- Heat vegetable oil in a fry pan. Deep fry dumpling wrappers until golden brown, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Remove with a metal strainer. Deep fry colored taro strips separately until crispy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with metal strainer.
- Shred jicama, daikon, and carrots into fine long strips. Separate each vegetable.
- Place smoked salmon in a small bowl. Then place the bowl in the middle of a large platter.
- Combine the ingredients for the dressing in a small pan over medium heat. Stir until sauces slightly thickened. Remove from the pan and place in a small bowl.
- Arrange ingredients into individual sections on a large platter.
- Squeeze lime onto smoked salmon and transfer it to the vegetables.
- Sprinkle the sesame seeds and the five-spiced powder and drizzle dressing over vegetables.