Curious about yusheng? NHB to put videos and quizzes online to trace dish's evolution

The quizzes will test people's knowledge of the yusheng dish and how it evolved over the years.
The quizzes will test people's knowledge of the yusheng dish and how it evolved over the years.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The emergence of yusheng as one of the country's most coveted Chinese New Year dishes is as much a recipe of individual enterprise as it is of culinary skill.

Yusheng as it was eaten about 70 years ago consisted of relatively few simple ingredients: raw fish, cucumber, radish and coriander, with none having fixed portions.

It was served with vinegar, oil and sugar according to the inclinations of customers, and so differed in taste from one diner to another.

The fish for yusheng was hung from the front of stalls in the early 1960s, in an environment that master chef Hooi Kok Wai describes as "quite unhygienic".

That didn't stop Mr Hooi, 82, and three others from hitting on an idea that transformed the humble dish into a staple of Chinese New Year today.

History was made on the second day of Chinese New Year in 1964, when the new-look yusheng made its debut.

Mr Hooi recalls: "We decided to make sure each ingredient and sauce had fixed portions, even before the concept of fixed portions in packet instant noodles became popular.

"We added some other ingredients to make it more colourful too, so that in terms of look, smell and taste it becomes appetising."

And it was the enterprising Mr Hooi who brought the dish to factories, clan associations and community clubs, and who also decided to integrate Chinese New Year greetings with the tossing of yusheng to make it a more festive experience.

The kitchen maestro, who has come to be known as one of the "Four Heavenly Kings" in the Singapore culinary scene, is now the master chef at Dragon Phoenix Grand restaurant at Temasek Club.

The Chinese New Year tradition will take the spotlight in the latest National Heritage Board (NHB) campaign, which from Thursday (Feb 4) will see quizzes and videos posted on its Facebook and Instagram pages and its website.

The quizzes will test people's knowledge of the dish and how it evolved while videos will show its preparation, how it's served, and how people have come together over the years to embrace it as a Chinese New Year tradition here and in Malaysia.

An Instagram filter will allow users to play auspicious sayings while they toss the yusheng, in light of the safe management measures this year that have prohibited people from traditionally shouting out greetings.

The tossing of yusheng was added to Singapore's 97-strong list of intangible cultural heritage.

Collectively, they celebrate the diversity of Singapore's multicultural practices and catalogue the evolution of important traditions that are still practised today.

Mr Alvin Tan, the NHB's deputy chief executive of policy and community, said the tossing of yusheng helps bind Singaporeans together.

He added that the NHB digital campaign has an added edge, as it shows how the traditionally lively practice contrasts with a much quieter affair this year.

"It is important to remember that intangible cultural heritage is a living heritage so it will evolve and it will adapt," he said.

Mr Jiang Wen Bin, 44, who was born in Shanghai but who now serves yusheng to customers at Mr Hooi's restaurant, said the Covid-19 restrictions do not change the spirit of yusheng.

"It took me two to three Chinese New Years to finally remember the sayings and the order in which they need to be said. Even with masks on, we can exchange glances and we will be able to let each other know that it is a happy occasion," he said.