Yusheng, or lohei, has become an integral part of Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore. But it is actually a relatively new tradition that is practised primarily here and in Malaysia, and not by Chinese in other parts of the world.
The story told here is that in 1964, four Singapore chefs - Sin Leong, Hooi Kok Wai, Tham Yui Kai and Lau Yoke Pui, known collectively as the Four Heavenly Culinary Kings - came up with a colourful version of a raw fish dish that was usually eaten with congee and served it as a festive dish.
Shredded raw vegetables and red and green pickles were added to the fish, and a sweet plum sauce to signify a sweet life ahead. Everyone at the table helps to toss the salad, shouting out good wishes while the ingredients go flying.
In Malaysia, however, the story is that a man from Seremban named Loke Cheng Fatt created the dish in the 1940s.
But whichever version is true, it is indisputable that nowhere has yusheng taken on so many forms and guises as in Singapore. Each year, restaurants here come up with innovative twists to the dish by coming up with new ingredients, new flavours and, in recent years, shaping the shredded vegetables to look like the Chinese zodiac animal of the new year.
I remember that in the 1970s, yusheng was eaten only on the seventh day of the lunar new year, which is called ren ri (literally "human day") and is considered everybody's birthday. But by the 1990s, people were eating it throughout the 15 days of the new year celebrations. Now, they start weeks ahead.
And why not? Singaporeans are more affluent and take it as an opportunity to have some fun whenever they have a gathering of colleagues, friends or family. And restaurants are only too happy to offer it because of the dish's handsome profit margins.
It is not just Chinese restaurants that serve this dish during the festival. Non-Chinese restaurants such as Sabai Fine Thai By The Bay and Indian restaurant Song Of India have their versions too. So do Western restaurants such as Alma and Corner House.
Each year, friends and colleagues would ask me for recommendations. So here are five of the most memorable yusheng I've tasted for 2019.
1. Long Beach Seafood Restaurants
30 Stevens Road 01-10 (next to Mercure Hotel), tel: 6445-8833
Open: 11am to 3pm, 5pm to midnight daily
Long Beach is a local chain of seafood restaurants with five outlets in various parts of the island, and I tasted its yusheng earlier this month at its newest outlet in Stevens Road.
What makes it stand out is that it is a fruit and not a vegetable salad. The fruit may vary, depending on what the chefs decide are the best on the day, but you're likely to find strawberries, dragonfruit, kiwifruit, mango and peach.
The raw seafood can vary too, as the seafood restaurants offers a wide choice that includes hamachi, turbot, geoduck and lobster. The standard abalone conch yusheng costs $228, but additional seafood will be charged according to market rates.
As an estimate, turbot costs $14.80 for 100g and Australian lobster is $29.80 for 100g at press time.
The fruit's acidity gives the dish an appetising tartness that is complemented well by the pineapple dressing for the salad. The colourful fruit just add to the appeal.
The dish is available for dine-in until Feb 19.
Min Jiang @ One North, the restaurant operated by Goodwood Park Hotel in Rochester Park, also offers a fruit yusheng with whole abalone in raspberry and sour plum sauce. It's very good, with fruit such as honeydew, kiwifruit and mango mixed with vegetables such as romaine lettuce and rocket leaves, and topped with pine nuts and peanuts. It's also for dine-in only (from $118 for small) until Feb 19.
2. Cherry Garden
Mandarin Oriental Singapore, 5 Raffles Avenue, tel: 6885-3500
Open: Noon to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm daily
At first glance, the yusheng here does not look much different from what you find in many other eateries. A mound of julienned vegetables such as carrot and radish forms the centre, surrounded by plates of raw salmon.
But look more closely and you find that there are also thinly sliced cucumber, purple cabbage and pear. And on the salmon are bits of Alaskan crab meat and julienned rosella fruit. And there's an extra plate of deep-fried fish skin.
But what I like most is the dressing - there is a spring onion sauce on top of the usual sweet one. They combine into a perfect balance of sweetness, umami and tartness.
In fact, I find the yusheng tastes better after it sits for a while as the fish and vegetables marinate in the dressing and the flavours develop further. So make sure you have seconds. And thirds.
It is available until Feb 19 as part of the restaurant's set menus for Chinese New Year, as well as an a la carte item for dine-in and takeaway. Prices are $138 for small and $276 for large.
3. Sabai Fine Thai By The Bay
01-02 Customs House, 70 Collyer Quay, tel: 6535-3718
Open: 11.30am to 1.45pm, 6 to 9.15pm daily
If you like the spicy, sweet and sour combination that characterises much of Thai cooking, Sabai's yusheng is just the thing for you.
Most of the ingredients are those you find in the traditional version - raw salmon, shredded radish, carrot and assorted greens, pickles and crushed peanuts. There are pomelo sacs too to give the salad a fruity freshness.
The Thai flavour comes from the dressing, which is a mix of fish sauce, lime juice, chilli, garlic and sugar that is similar to what is used for Thai dishes such as steamed fish. But to balance the tartness is a plum sauce dressing.
I love the zing from the lime juice and the slow burn that comes from the chopped chillies. That makes this a nice break from the usual sweet yusheng, much as I enjoy that too.
Sabai's yusheng comes in two sizes, at $58.88 and $78.88. For takeaways, it provides complimentary delivery to nearby addresses such as Raffles Place. It is available until Feb 19.
4. Wah Lok Cantonese Restaurant
Carlton Hotel Singapore, 76 Bras Basah Road, tel: 6311-8188/8189
Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm daily (lunch starts at noon on Sundays and public holidays) The yusheng here goes back to the dish's original roots by having a savoury soya sauce-based dressing instead of sweet plum sauce.
Called hamachi yusheng "Shunde" style, it is named after the district in China's Guangdong province where the dish came from. But instead of the freshwater fish used in the old days, sashimi-grade hamachi (amberjack) from Japan is used for better food safety.
The fish is sliced thickly, so it does not get overwhelmed by the salty sauce. A tinge of lemon juice also helps to balance the flavours.
The fish is tossed with ingredients such as shredded cucumber, ginger, spring onion and ground peanuts.
It is available until Feb 19 for dine-in only, at $108 for small and $188 for large.
5. Si Chuan Dou Hua
Top of UOB Plaza, 80 Raffles Place 60-01, tel: 6535-6006
Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6.30 to 10.30pm daily
If you want a break from the usual salmon and hamachi for your yusheng, try the fugu version here.
I love raw pufferfish for its texture. It is tougher than most other fish and so it is often sliced very thinly until translucent. Even then, it has a very firm bite, which I like very much.
Here, the slices are arranged artfully into a smiling pig face to go with the Year of the Pig. Also in homage to the zodiac animal, house-made bak kwa is added to the yusheng.
Tossed with a variety of fresh greens including rocket leaves and ice plant, as well as deep-fried silver bait, there is an abundance of flavours and textures.
It is available at $198 at the chain's Top of UOB Plaza outlet until Feb 19.