I haven’t been back home for Chinese New Year in two years, because English universities don’t give you time off to celebrate that. For college students in Japan, though, it’s now spring holidays, which means I was able to fly back to Malaysia after my exams to celebrate it this year.
I did miss some things, like the dizzying quantities of food, accumulating angpows (red packets; otoshidama) and playing chor dai di. I even missed the ear-splitting lion dances! However, I did not miss all the characteristically blunt comments about one’s appearance/weight/relationship status from Chinese relatives and aunties.
“Wah, you lost so much weight already hor! You look so different! You know, last time you were a little bit, you know, but now you’re so slim already! So pretty!” This gem from one of my mother’s tai tai friends, admittedly not quite as blunt as my aunt. Upon spotting me, my father’s older sister walked up to me, and gripped my arms with bony hands. She appraised me critically for a second and declared, in Mandarin, “you’ve gotten slimmer.” She then turned to my younger sister and stated flatly, “you got fatter.”
This sort of double-edged praise is terribly unsettling – the idea that slim = pretty just ain’t cool. (Plus, it wasn’t like I deliberately set out to lose weight – taking pole dancing lessons will do that to anyone…) Another aunty also quizzed me, asking, “Did you follow some strict diet ah? You controlled what you eat is it.”
She probably envisioned me as a rabbit, nibbling at carrots or picking at leaves on a plate. Unfortunately for her, I don’t subscribe to those practices – if there’s a chicken around, I go for the liver. Crispy skin on a proper deepfried chicken? Self-control? The fuck is that? Also, when I’m drunk (which has only happened once in my entire 22 years on this planet… yes, I’ve spent my college years staying completely sober) I talk nonstop about all the things I want to eat. Which is basically me when I’m sober.
Anyway, I always think that people who restrict themselves to undressed leaves to lose weight must be really, really miserable creatures, since they’re missing out on all the culinary pleasures of life. This is not to say that salad is bad – I love a delicious salad as much as a good pho or eggplant stew. And besides, you haven’t celebrated a complete (and yummy) Malaysian Chinese New Year if you haven’t had yee sang.
Yee sang (Cantonese) or yúshēng (Chinese) is, like so many Chinese foods eaten during the Lunar New Year, a pun for prosperity – it means ‘raw fish’, which is also a homophone for ‘increase in abundance’. It is essentially a salad of julienned vegetables, as pretty as it is gorgeous, a marriage of various flavours and textures which make it a joy to eat: sourness in the form of pickles, usually ginger; crunch in the form of chopped nuts and deepfried wonton skins; a hint of spice from white pepper and five-spice powder; the whole affair bound together by a sweet, sticky plum sauce and tossed high for wealth and luck.
This is eaten around Chinese New Year, but there’s no reason not to have it any time of the year. I used to avoid yee sang, mostly because I didn’t like most vegetables and plum sauce when I was younger, but also because most restaurant versions are oily and sauce-sodden, sad and limp, and stingy with the seafood component.
Homemade trumps the expensive restaurant version here – it’s cheaper, and you can be as generous as you like with the abalone or sashimi. Or you could be fancy and have both – ooh la la! Whatever you do, as long as you keep it balanced and have a light hand with the dressing, It’ll always be delicious, even if it isn’t Chinese New Year. (Warning: extra prosperity not guaranteed.)
Mum’s yee sang, version 2013
There are a myriad variations on yee sang, but most begin with Asian radish (daikon), carrots and turnips. Her way of making it is terribly imprecise (as usual), so this is more of a vague guideline than an actual recipe – plus, she used a ‘Premium Yee Sang’ box which included most of the toppings. I would recommend using this excellent and thorough post on how to make yee sang, and vary the ingredients according to what you want – see below for a list of ingredients mum used this year.
As you can see from the photos, several handfuls of radish, turnip and carrot make up the body of the salad. She threw in a scattering of dried cranberries and a small heap or two of Korean pear (though you could use Japanese ones too) for a burst of fruity sweetness; pomelo is a common addition, though I absolutely hate the taste of it. My father spent part of the morning toasting pine nuts and macadamias. Whatever you do, the key to this is not letting one particular vegetable or flavour dominate too much. We think that oil in addition to the plum sauce makes yee sang a little too heavy, but you might like to add a tablespoon or two if there isn’t enough dressing.
Korean pear (or: Japanese pear, apples)
A handful of coriander
Spring onions, green parts only
Dried cranberries and/or goji berries
Sliced abalone and/or sashimi
Pine nuts, peanuts and/or macadamias, toasted
Sesame seeds, toasted
Deepfried wonton skins/crackers
Pickled ginger, green papaya and/or leek
Plum sauce (optional: add a squeeze of lime)
Peel and julienne the carrot, radish, pear and turnip into matchsticks. Alternatively, use a mandolin to grate them, if that suits you. Separate the leaves and stems of the coriander, which should leave you with about one rice bowlful. Cut the spring onions into 3-inch lengths, and then tear them into long strands so they curl up prettily – have enough for half a rice bowlful. If using peanuts or macadamias, crush or chop them roughly into smallish bits. Pine nuts can be left as they are.
Arrange small heaps of julienned roots and vegetables in alternating colours on a large serving dish. Intersperse these with the spring onions and coriander – if there are coriander haters, simply serve it on the side for everyone else to mix into their own portions. Scatter the nuts and berries on top. Arrange the abalone or raw fish on top, like a fan. Scatter a generous handful of crackers, some sesame seeds, about a tablespoon or two of pickles (go easy!) and a couple of pinches of the spices on top. Drizzle enough plum sauce for the amount of salad on your plate.
Bring your folks to the table, grab a pair of chopsticks. Toss, bringing the salad high for luck. Say some platitudes. Eat!