The first time you participate in a yu sang, or lo hei salad toss, all the things your parents taught you about not playing with your food is forced out the window.
Over the Lunar New Year's two-week period, Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia participate in a noisy and messy tradition, where everybody at the table reaches into a big pile of shredded veggies and tries to mix it up with chopsticks. The higher the better, for this roisterous custom.
The salad is typically made of colorful ingredients, such as carrot, cucumber, and white radish. There's raw fish added on top—typically a sashimi-style salmon—and the whole thing is topped with sweet condiments like plum sauce, crushed peanuts, crispy crackers, and cinnamon powder.
The result is a tasty sweet-and-sour appetizer that is usually served before the meal itself. But it's really the fun of tossing it that keeps it going.
The practice is slowly spreading to other cities in Asia, such as Hong Kong, but folks in China are unlikely to have heard of it.
Folks in China are unlikely to have heard of it.
The invention of lo hei goes back to the 1960s, and is credited to four Cantonese chefs from Singapore, popularly known as the “Four Heavenly Kings”—Tham Yew Kai, Sin Leong, Lau Yoke Pui and Hooi Kok Wai.
All four had the same mentor, Luo Chen, a Hong Kong-born chef who headed the legendary Cantonese restaurant at Singapore's now-closed Cathay Hotel. The four kept in touch, and even after they went out and started their own restaurants, they reportedly got together to create new dishes. And that includes yu sang.
Many families also put together their own home versions of the platter. Of his family’s version, Goz Lee, author of Plusixfive: A Singaporean Supper Club Cookbook (2013), says, “I like to marinate my raw salmon overnight in Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce. I really like pomelo, so I add loads. We also add crispy fried fish skins.
It's really the fun of tossing it that keeps it going.
“It’s great also because it’s really communal–even the preparation–everyone gets in on it, arranging it nicely, and then everyone will hold an ingredient and have something auspicious to say about it as they add it to the dish.”
After the ingredients are added, it's time for the toss. It’s said that the higher one tosses, the happier one will be, which comes from a Cantonese homophone—the words “lo hei” means to “toss”, and “hei” also sounds like the word for happiness.
So while the lo hei salad toss is a relatively new tradition, it looks like it's here to stay as a fun way to kick off a festive meal.
With additional material adapted from this SCMP article.