Yusheng is a salad appetizer almost always served in Chinese restaurants during the Lunar New Year. Its name literally translates to “fish raw” in English but the words “abundance increase” can also be pronounced the same way in Mandarin, which is apparently the main selling point of the dish.
While it has been touted as a traditional dish with over 1000 years years of history, the truth is Yusheng was only more recently invented in 1964 by a sly chef in Singapore for the then newly opened Lai Wah Restaurant. Fish dishes in China have almost always been cooked, since ancient Chinese physicians already knew about the dangers of parasites some 1800 years ago.
The Chinese people have always been some of the most cunningly innovative in the world, having created many of the world’s oldest technologies. This shrewd ingenuity was first brought into the kitchen hundreds of years ago when servants tricked royalty into eating the tasteless shark’s fin, bird’s nest and sea cucumber as delicacies. Yusheng takes this skill to a whole new level by getting people to order a dish that they very well know will taste awful.
Each plate of Yusheng consists of shredded servings of raw fish, jellyfish, daikon, carrots, turnips, peanuts, crackers and other random vegetables that vary from place to place. In recent years, the raw fish provided is almost always a few measly slices of the inexpensive (and rather dangerous) salmon. The dish is laced with Chinese five-spice powder (a pungent concoction of cinnamon, pepper, ginger and other spices that vary by kitchen as well) and topped off with sour plum sauce to mask the stale fish.
When serving the dish, the waiter will normally pour the spices and sauce onto the dish while uttering certain phrases to wish the guests prosperity while secretly mocking their gullibility. The guests are given chopsticks and standing up, they are supposed to toss the salad upwards into the air. The reason being that the higher the salad is tossed, the more one’s fortune will increase (another play on the dish’s name). Most of the dish always ends up on the table. The waiter splits whatever remains into portions for the diners.
Locals remain thrilled by the novelty of the dish. Restaurants too are thrilled at how much they can sell this inexpensive dish which requires absolutely no preparation. Over the years, all Singaporean Chinese restaurants have adopted this dish as part of their staple Chinese New Year menu. A small plate of Yusheng which serves 4 people typically sells for about $25. A larger portion for 8-10 people can cost upwards of $50. When entering a Chinese restaurant during the new year, the dish is always included as part of their grossly priced set meal, sometimes the only option on their menu during this season.
Images from this post are taken by MJ from Indochine’s Madame Butterfly restaurant. If despite all warnings you still find yourself absolutely compelled to try this dish, I would suggest visiting this restaurant at Clark Quay. They provide generous servings when compared to most other kitchens. The pictured couples’ set serves 2-4 people and costs $28.