There’s a lot of things that we as Malaysians look forward to during the Chinese New Year period. There’s the firecrackers, the lion dance shows, the abundance of mandarins; but Yee Sang is one of the dishes that all Malaysians look forward to with the most anticipation. But we live in a multi-cultural society in New Zealand where traditions all blend in well with other cultures. And there is no reason why Yee Sang cannot be had to usher in 2021.
While Yee Sang is a Malaysian Chinese dish, it did not originate from China. In fact Chinese from China would not have heard of this dish. So where did it originate from? According to a book titled ‘A Toss of Yee Sang’, it was started by a man called Loke Ching Fatt who came to Malaysia (then Malaya) from Yu Sheng, China, and he ended up adapting a Yu Sheng recipe, which the Cantonese were so fond of eating during the seventh day of Chinese New Year.
Interestingly, this dish started out as a poor man’s food. Times were hard back then so instead of having eight course dinners like we do now, the Chinese made do with vegetables that were easily attainable from their own garden.
These vegetables are chopped up and dressed in equally simple dressings like sweet plum sauce, vegetable oil, salt and pepper to flavour it. To add a bit of ‘yu’ (bounty or prosperity in Chinese) to the simple meal, they added fish (also called ‘yu’) hence the appearance of salmon in the mix. Thing to note is that the fish has to be raw, or ‘sang’ in Chinese, because ‘sang’ also means to grow and prosper. The chosen vegetables weren’t simply picked on a whim. Seven symbolic vegetables can always be found in any yee sang platter.
On top of the vegetables, extra ingredients like the following are often sprinkled on top before the tossing.
Crackers are symbolic of the gold bars and tales from the olden days, thanks to their golden brown colour. Their sprinkling is likened to having gold spilling all over the ground so you’ll always have money in your home.
Chopped peanuts not only add a nice crunch and nutty flavour to the yee sang, you are essentially being blessed with many children and a healthy future generation with it, a descendent line that grows and spread far and wide like peanut roots.
Yee sang has to be sweet, so your year ahead boasts nothing but sweetness. The most popular sauce is plum sauce.
Vegetable oil represents liquid gold pouring over your life and affairs so not an area is missed from being covered in auspiciousness and prosperity.
Five spice powder is added to represent the five branches of happiness that Chinese believe in – kindness, wealth, health, family and happy ending no matter where you turn.
On top of adding zest to the raw fish, spritzing lime juice, ‘kat zhai’ in Chinese, is also symbolic of having endless luck coming your way (‘tai kat tai lei’).
Now all you need to do is to make sure you toss it high and make as big a mess as you possibly can. The higher you toss, the higher your life and social standard will improve and the bigger a mess you make symbolises the bigger the grounds all these well wishes will cover in your life.
In New Zealand, some of the ingredients are hard to find due to local import restrictions and also our climate. Therefore, my variation to the popular Yee Sang dish uses some substitutes but retains the flavours and colours that make this dish a stand out.