Celebrating Chinese New Year with food and lucky money
Today is Chinese New Year’s Eve. Many Chinese families will be congregating tonight for the traditional reunion banquet to welcome the Year of the Horse.
Below: Too much food is a must at reunion dinners. This signifies abundance for the rest of the year.
As a child, after a 3-generational reunion dinner, my father would take my grandfather to the Goddess of Mercy temple to pray for a good year ahead.
There was a system:
– The $10 notes would be in red envelopes with, say, pictures of lanterns.
– Meanwhile, the $20 notes would be in red packets of a different design, say, with pictures of fish.
(My 4th Uncle always uses red packets bearing his Chinese surname written in gold. Classy, huh?)
And to make doubly sure there was no mix-up, my mum would bundle the differently denominated red packets in labelled, white envelopes.
Yes, when it comes to all things financial, my mother is nothing if not systematic.
I bet she’s doing that on this very day too. I’m just too many thousands of miles away to give her a hand… **sniff**
Why the different denominations? Well, they’re a bit like Christmas presents: you naturally give something more expensive to someone closer to you (eg your niece).
As a married adult, you’re obliged to give lucky money to any child you meet even if you don’t know them well (though that obviously excludes strangers you pass on the street).
For example, we used to congregate at my grandparents’ house with the families of my mum’s numerous siblings, to pay our respects to my grandparents. My grandfather’s own friends, with children in tow, would also be there.
It was the done thing for my parents to give red packets to those children even though the kids probably had no idea who my parents were. Being in the same house provided a sufficent nexus to trigger the red packet obligation.
Fa Cai Yu Sheng salad 发财鱼生
Have you spied groups of chopstick-wielding people messily tossing a rainbow of veggies, laughing raucously and reciting Chinese sayings around the Chinese New Year season?
This salad is crucial to every Chinese New Year celebration in Singapore and Malaysia. Like having turkey (if you’re American) or prawns (if you’re Australian) at Christmas.
Yu Sheng is the salad equivalent of Cate Blanchett – drop-dead stunning on the outside and just as lovely on the inside. And eating this auspicious dish could bring the diner closer to achieving Cate’s level of riches – maybe someday I’ll buy a waterfront investment property in a high-class suburb for my kids too, heh heh.
As a bonus, Yu Sheng is healthy, being:
- low fat
- high fibre
- low carb
- high omega-3. Especially when you use generous batons of salmon sashimi, instead of the customary gossamer-thin slivers of white-fleshed fish.
Bonding through Yu Sheng
Carving a turkey is a solitary pursuit. In contrast, feasting on Yu Sheng provides a unique bonding experience.
Before tucking in, fellow diners lift their chopsticks and toss the Yu Sheng together. At this point, a feaster in the know utters poetic and auspicious Chinese sayings for luck and wealth, represented by certain ingredients.
Indeed, “Yu Sheng” is a homophone for the words abundance and rising in Chinese. The tossing action represents rising.
“Exactly what is rising?” you rightly ask. Well, it’s whatever you want to rise or increase this year, be it your marks, your luck, or the value of your share portfolio / investment property / bank balance.
Just what is Yu Sheng?
It is a colourful, crisp, sweet and tangy salad. It contains the freshest sliced raw fish, shredded vegetables, aromatic pickles, crunchy toppings, and a tangy plum dressing.
It’s a must-have for Chinese New Year in Singapore and Malaysia. Countless restaurants there serve this festive dish. Consequently, very few people living there make it at home.
Not many Sydney restaurants serve this labour-intensive dish. Those that do, charge handsomely for the privilege.
Necessity is the mother of… etc etc. Had I been living in Singapore or Malaysia, I wouldn’t be making Yu Sheng, and M.O.T.H. (Man Of The House) wouldn’t be cooking char kway teow.
I love Yu Sheng but I’m too miserly to pay Sydney prices for it. Out of desperation and love for the dish, I reverse-engineered the best restaurant versions I’d eaten (thanks to my parents and my 6th Uncle) and cherry-picked from various recipes.
I am heartened to say this version has the approval of my family in Singapore. Yup, that’s the discerning folks who’ve been eating Yu Sheng every year for over 30 years.
Yu Sheng recipe with secret short-cut toppings
Serves 8 to 10 people as a starter.
Degree of difficulty:
Quite high. 2 reasons:
- You’ll need to hunt down the 20-odd ingredients. You will find the more exotic ingredients in a good Asian grocery shop, eg in Sydney’s Cabramatta or Flemington shopping village (not to be confused with the Sydney Markets at Flemington).
- It’s also time-consuming to process lots of vegetables and make the shallot oil.
The good news:
- You can prepare everything (except the fish) the day before.
- You needn’t deep-fry wonton skins. At the very least, this recipe contains short cuts for crunchy toppings.
Omit the fish. That’s it. You’ll still end up with a beautiful dish of complex flavours and contrasting textures.
Fish-free, meaty option:
Not a fan of raw fish? Whatever you do, don’t substitute with cooked fish, smoked salmon or canned tuna!!
Use roast duck (in bite-sized, boneless pieces) – it is a perfect match for the flavours in this salad.
Below: Roast duck salad (capsicum as pictured is OK in a ducky salad, but not a fishy salad).
Ingredients: The Dressing
Plum sauce, 4 tbsp
Lime juice, 2 to 3 tbsp
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp five-spice powder
½ tsp white pepper
Kaffir lime leaves, 1 heaped tsp. Pulverise the leaves in a grinder or finely chop by hand.
Shallot oil, 3 tbsp** (If making shallot oil is too much of a palaver, substitute with 1 tbsp Korean sesame oil and 2 tbsp neutral oil. But it won’t taste the same.)
Ingredients: The Fibre
Below: Fresh whole yam bean; yam bean cut into matchsticks.
Yam bean (a.k.a. jicama or bangkuang), 1 cup, peeled and cut into matchsticks. This is seasonal. If you can’t find it, just use more carrots and cucumbers. Some recipes use grated daikon, but I find certain varieties too peppery. Yam beans are sweet and more subtle.
Grated carrots, 1 cup
Cucumber with seeds removed and sliced into matchsticks, 1 cup
Pickled leeks, sliced, ½ cup
Candied winter melon, roughly chopped, ½ cup
Pickled ginger, 1 tsp, finely chopped
Fresh young ginger, 1 tsp, finely chopped
Sacs of pomelo or ruby grapefruit, ½ cup. Here’s a video on how to peel a pomelo like an expert:
Below (from left): Candied walnuts, candied winter melon and (in jar and in dish) pickled leeks.
Ingredients: The Protein
Salmon sashimi 300g, sliced
Ingredients: The Toppings
Freshly roasted peanuts, 2 tbsp, crushed
Toasted sesame seeds, 1 tbsp, crushed (get them already toasted, from Korean grocers)
Candied walnuts, 2 tbsp, broken into pieces (Secret-Shortcut #1: This isn’t a traditional ingredient, but it adds a beautiful sweetness and crunch.)
Grainwaves in original flavour, 2 handfuls, broken into pieces (Secret-Shortcut #2: Believe me, the flavour goes surprisingly well with the salad. I’ve tested LOTS of snacks and found these most suitable. They also stay crunchy for longer than deep-fried wonton skins. And I don’t need to deep-fry them! Note to people living outside Australia: Grainwaves are a wavy wholemeal chip found in the snacks aisle of most supermarkets. If you can’t find it, you might have to deep-fry wonton skins.)
1. Mix ingredients for The Dressing in a bowl. Taste it. Adjust if necessary to get a balance of salty (salt), sweet (plum sauce or sugar) and sour (lime juice) elements. Pour the dressing into a jug and set aside.
2. Arrange ingredients for The Fibre in sections on a round platter, leaving a circular empty space in the middle.
3. Arrange the salmon in the space in the middle.
4. Decorate with all ingredients (except Grainwaves) for The Toppings.
5. Once everyone is ready to eat, pour the dressing over the salad (you might not need all the dressing; you don’t want it too soggy). Scatter the Grainwaves on top.
6. Then get everyone to dig in with their (clean) chopsticks to toss the salad. Designate someone to call out auspicious Chinese sayings like:
~ Good fortune and good luck to everyone every year!
~ Bring on the riches and jewels!
~ May your floor be covered with gold!
~ May you rise ever higher!
~ The hardship has ended and let the sweet life begin!
7. Serve immediately.
- Peel, then thinly slice, 5 shallots (the miniature red or golden-brown onions), wearing goggles if you don’t want to cry.
- Heat 1 cup of neutral oil in a wok on medium heat. Deep-fry the shallots.
- When the shallots turn pale gold, turn off heat, remove them from oil and place on paper towels to drain. They will continue to deepen in colour. Store cooled shallots in an air-tight jar for another use.
- When the shallot oil is cool enough to handle, pour into a glass jar and keep in a darkened place for up to 2 weeks.
Uses for shallot oil:
- Toss steamed broccoli with shallot oil and soy sauce.
- Lift the flavour of clear broths by drizzling a teaspoon of shallot oil just before serving.
- For a refreshing and simple salad, toss roughly cut cucumber with shallot oil, soy sauce, black vinegar and grated ginger.
- As an aromatic garnish for congee or chicken noodle soup.
- My favourite? Mix steamed rice with a drizzle of shallot oil, soy sauce and white pepper. Comfort food plus plus.