Yu Sheng/Yee Sang “Rainbow Raw Fish Salad” (recipe)
This post was originally published on February 18, 2009. It has been updated once since then.
Prior to last year I had never heard of Yu Sheng (also known as Yee Sang), indeed I only became aware of its existence thanks to research done for a blogging event. As this year the Chinese New Year falls on Valentine’s Day it seemed only fitting to repost this recipe, which is one I’ve fallen in love with 🙂
According to Wikipedia:
Yusheng , yee sang or yuu sahng (simplified Chinese: ??; pinyin: yúsh?ng) is a Chaozhou-style raw fish salad. It usually consists of strips of raw fish (most commonly salmon), mixed with shredded vegetables and a variety of sauces and condiments, among other ingredients. Yusheng literally means “raw fish” but since “fish (?)” is commonly conflated with its homophone “abundance (?)”, Yúsh?ng (??) is interpreted as a homophone for Yúsh?ng (??) meaning an increase in abundance. Therefore, yusheng is considered a symbol of abundance, prosperity and vigor.
Fishermen along the coast of Guangzhou traditionally celebrated Renri, the seventh day of the Chinese New Year, by feasting on their catches. This practice is believed to have started in Chaozhou and Shantou as far back as the Southern Song Dynasty. In Malaya’s colonial past, migrants imported this tradition; porridge stalls sold a raw fish dish which is believed to have originated in Jiangmen, Guangdong province that consisted of fish, turnip and carrot strips, which was served with condiments of oil, vinegar and sugar that were mixed in by customers. The modern yusheng dish originated in during Chinese New Year in 1964 in Lai Wah Restaurant and was invented by master chef Than Mui Kai (Tham Yu Kai, co-head chef of Lai Wah restaurant)as a symbol of prosperity and good health amongst the Chinese.
As I always do, when preparing a completely unknown dish for the first time, I decided to plow through as many blogs and articles as possible, featuring this dish. I wanted to get a sense of its personality, components, what elements people included time and time again and which components lended themselves to personalization and preference.
Many of the initial recipes that I discovered led me to believe that this dish leaned towards the sweet side, thanks to deep fried wonton skins and liberal amounts of plum sauce. Boy am I glad that I didn’t stop there though because it wasn’t until I reached an entry by EatingAsia that I felt that moment of recognition, where I finally felt I understood what this dish was supposed to be about.
Lamenting the fact that so many commercial Yu Sheng’s underwhelm the palate, EatingAsia praised the dish as prepared by a Kuala Lampur restaurant called Sek Yuen.
Sek Yuen’s yu sheng is a textural marvel – the combination of six fresh and pickled ingredients, cut to almost exactly the same shape and size, culminates in one big, satisfying crunch. It’s sweet from the plum sauce, but also boasts varying shades of tartness from pickles, lime juice, and fragrant lime leaves. The overwhelming flavors are of fish and vegetables, spiced up with ginger two ways (pickled and fresh) and white pepper. The cinnamon adds a subtle warm note. Won ton crisps (most other versions use colored crunchies of unidentifiable origin) – sturdy, grease-less, and wheaty – are delicious enough to eat on their own. Kudos to the restaurant for its light hand with the dressing and for its use of sesame oil; I’ve had more than my share of yu sheng drenched in plain old cooking oil – blech!
The words were evocative, the photos breathtaking. This would be the formula that I would use as the base for where my own whimsy would take me!
Next on my agenda, was to determine how to handle the raw fish component. I do not follow a vegan raw diet so fish is not a problem for me. I adore sashimi, but with two days to go before the event deadline I had no idea where to get sashimi grade salmon locally and figured that cold-smoked salmon could be a suitable substitute, but was this permissible? Again, I turned to the internet where I learnt that an Italian restaurant in Singapore offers a smoked salmon Yu Sheng, and that Singapore Airlines does as well for passengers. Not only that but in recent years some Singaporean restaurants have been radically reinterpreting Yu Sheng with great success. Smoked salmon was a go.
Only one more obstacle stood in my way, but this time it was a self-imposed one. I was determined to make this recipe as raw as possible. This meant no commercially bought plum sauce, and definitely no deep-fried wonton skins. PIckled ginger can be prepared in a raw fashion, but again time was working against me, chopped raw ginger would have to do. I made a raw plum sauce from scratch, and in lieu of wonton skins I prepared dehydrated almond crackers using some leftover almond pulp that I had frozen after making a nut ‘milk’.
Although I was nervous putting this together, as I started to see it coming together my anxiety started to be overcome with excitement. I always get this way when trying something new!
After all was done, J and I tossed the salad together until everything was well-blended! This technique makes sure that all the essential components of the yu sheng, get to take center stage with each bite. The hot and spicy, the crunchy, the slightly sour, the sweet. The warmth of the oily marinated salmon, and the cool crisp vegetable shreds. It ends up being something so much above and beyond the sum of its parts. I know that this recipe is only supposed to be served once a year, but it’s going to be very very hard for me not to make it a semi-regular habit 🙂
To learn more about Yu Sheng:
• Chinese New Year 2009: Yu Sheng with a Twist
• Yu Sheng Rituals and Meanings
• The Dish: Yu Sheng (Wall Street Journal)
• Yu Sheng on Flickr
• Oranges, yee sang and a beast: Myths and facts about Chinese New Year!
Yu Sheng/Yee Sang “Rainbow Raw Fish Salad”
8 oz smoked salmon
1 tablespoon nama shoyu
2 carrots, shredded
1 sweet potato, peeled and shredded
1/2 avocado, cubed
4 tbsp chopped chive
3 pimiento peppers, sliced thinly
2 inches ginger, peeled and julienned into thin matchsticks
2 leaves pak choi (bok choy)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/4 peanuts, chopped
3 or 4 chadon beni leaves or cilantro
rice wine vinegar
1. Tear the smoked salmon into large irregular pieces
2. Marinate in sesame oil (enough to almost cover), 1 tsp nama shoyu, and 1/2 of the julienned ginger. Turn occasionally while assembling the rest of the recipe.
3. Sort shredded carrot and sweet potato into separate mounds. I used 2 mounds of each and arranged around the perimeter of a circular plate or dish, alternating with chopped avocado, and a mound of combined chive, pimientos and the remainder of ginger. Be sure to leave a hole in the center for the fish!
4. Once assembled drizzle the assorted vegetables with one tablespoon rice vinegar, one tablespoon of sesame oil
5. Next, sprinkle the sesame seeds, chadon beni and cilantro
6. Around the perimeter sprinkle the chopped peanuts and cracked dehydrated almond crackers (feel free to use fried wonton skins if non-raw)
7. Place half of the shredded bok choy in the center of the plate
8. Add the fish and marinade to the center of the plate
9. Top fish with the remainder of the bok choy
10. Squeeze half a lime over the fish and bok choy
11. Drizzle plum sauce (1/2-3/4 cup) over the shredded vegetables. (here is a recipe for raw plum sauce if not using commercial 🙂 )
12. Toss to combine at the table! 🙂
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