I had read about the local new year custom, whereby families gather round a wide shallow dish of raw foods and toss them together. I like the idea of the salad and the get together but was not sure what this was all about. But on Saturday morning, Ian and I headed to the market at Tamam Lucky in Bangsar with my parents, who are visiting. I love markets. Thinking about food, shopping for food in markets, cooking, sharing and eating it are my five favourite pastimes, so this is a must-do for me.
I bought my fish, meat, fruit and veg and while I was waiting for the lady to peel and prepare my pineapple (who knew they did that?) then we headed off to the flower stall. I developed a flower-buying habit in Holland, where few can resist the bloemists, and I wanted orchids. Ian had already bought me some gorgeous amber ones by the time I arrived while my mother was buying me armfuls of magenta flowers.
“You had yee sang yet?” asked the flower seller.
We looked at her quizzically.
“Chinese New Year salad,” she explained. “Everybody share.”
We rehearsed the words a few times, were declared word perfect and vowed to try this before the celebrations were over.
Two hours later we succumbed, finding just the Chinese restaurant we needed in the shopping mall next door. We ordered one large plate, for sharing. The waiter raised his eyebrows. We thought he meant it was not going to be enough. Still, we weren’t terribly hungry and just wanted a taste anyway. We did decide to order to dim sum variety dish too, also to share, out of curiosity as we’d seen it advertised on the billboard outside. The dumplings were a variety of unlikely colours and flavoured with such oddities as foie gras and ginseng. We had to give that a try too.
Soon after, a huge red shallow bowl arrived displaying several heaps of raw vegetables, some kind of deep fried crisps and other items I could not name. They handed us four pairs of extra long wooden chopsticks.
“Father won’t be able to do it,” my mother said with finality.
Keen to have the challenge I metamorphosised into the Bossy Britches they called me when I was a child and probably still do behind my back.
“Hold this one like a pencil,” I commanded.
He fumbled a bit and looked helpless.
“A pencil!” I repeated. “You know how to hold one of those, right?”
“Shhh,” hissed Ian. Oops, I didn’t realise I was shouting. But then Bossy Britches was never known for whispering.
“He’ll never do it.” Mother sighed.
“Look at me, Pa. Copy me!” I growled, speaking one word at a time.
Well whaddaya know, he did it! He may be 86 years old but I guess he must still be frightened of me…
A second tray, filled with small bowls of ingredients, held by a second waiter, stood by.
The first waiter took the ingredients from the tray one at a time. First he sprinkled the pieces of raw salmon on top of the salad mountains. “This is for abundance,” he said.
Next, the pomelo (this is a kind of grapefruit) juice. “For good luck and smooth sailing.”
The pepper. “For wealth.”
Oil. “More wealth, from different sources.”
Carrots. “Many blessings.”
Shredded radish. “Good progress for you.”
Peanut crumbs. “Much silver and gold for your house.”
Sesame seeds. “Prosperity.”
Plum sauce. “May your life be sweet.”
and finally, the crispy things. “Gold for you too.” Then he indicated we were to take our chopsticks and mix the salad ourselves. “Make it go high. Higher the better,” he said and indicated that we were to toss the salad with a chopstick in either hand.
And so we tossed the salad. High. And then we ate it. With chopsticks and it was utterly delicious!
We didn’t really have room for the dim sum, which also came with instructions as they, in order to have good luck, needed to be eaten in the right order. They were pretty good too, but I dread to think how many E numbers were in the food colouring.
The dish, called yee sang by Henny the flower seller, is also called yu sheng, which really means ‘raw fish’ but has the homophone of abundance, which is why it has become a Chinese New Year tradition. According to Wikipedia it is almost unheard of in China, having been invented in a Singapore kitchen by a chef in 1964. It has now become traditional in Malaysia too and jolly glad we are too.
If you fancy trying the recipe, I added a link, here.