November 27th, 2020
Toss a Fortune Salad at Your Family Reunions!
Around this time of year, social media sites will be full of clips and videos of gatherings across Malaysia participating in an elaborate salad tossing.
Surrounding a circular table, a large dish of shredded vegetables, preserved spices, crispy crackers, and raw fish slices are exuberantly mixed and tossed by everyone yelling out their wishes for the new year. And should you have been fortunate to partake in such an occasion, have you ever wondered why the salad is served and mixed with such care?
This is known as the Yee Sang!
Often served as the appetizer to celebratory banquets, the Yee Sang is a wholly Southeast Asian Chinese practice. While making their way southward, Chinese migrants faced difficulty in preparing the traditional 8-course feast for their community as resources were expensive and scarce. A combined medley of easily-available vegetables grown on their own gardens and some light protein of fish, all symbolise a simple yet endearing harvest of auspicious items.
But not just any vegetable harvest is chosen to be a part of the platter. The Chinese names of the vegetables play a big part in the selection with their meaning and characters being taken into account.
With a Chinese name of ‘qui tao’ sounding similarly to the Chinese word for ‘ideas’, leeks are often presented shredded or pickled. It is eaten to encourage individuals to be creative and smart in coming up with ideas to grow and prosper in many aspects of their life.
Sharing the same pronunciation, cucumber is correlated with ‘returns’—’ja kua’. This addition to the platter is to wish all who consume it, many happy returns in all ventures attempted.
Well loved across many dishes in Chinese cuisine, ginger promotes healing and anti-bacterial qualities. Added to neutralise the potential bacteria coming from the raw fish and to freshen the palate, this is eaten for good health and strong immunity. Ginger is served either in its naturally yellow colour or dyed red to brighten the dish.
A beloved root vegetable across all cultures, the bright colour of carrots symbolise gold, and the treasures to be collected by the household partaking in the salad.
As the most easily available winter vegetable, the raddish (interchangeable with turnip) makes for the bulk of the platter. Representing fullness and abundance, this humble item filled many bellies of the migrant families.
- Pok Chui Crackers
Simple deep-fried flour pillows are sprinkled over the salad, just for the fun of it! Symbolic of gold ingots and Chinese taels of the past, these golden brown crisps are thought to visualise the flow of wealth in your homes.
- Peanuts and Sesame Seeds
Added to be another source of rich protein in the salad, peanut brittle and sesame seeds essentially represent an overflowing of blessings that spread far and wide like the roots of the plants they are derived from.
- Sweet sauce
Most often to be plum sauce, this addition binds the mix together and adds a sweet touch to your fortune. Recent variations however have increased the variety of flavour, from pineapple to pomegranate sauces.
- Vegetable Oil
With so much already derived from vegetables, the creation of the Yee Sang also relies on plant oil to to add luster the salad. The act of oil pouring is akin to drizzling liquid gold as an added blessing!
- Pepper and 5-Spice Powder
Representing the complete branches of Chinese belief—family, prosperity, health, kindness, and happy endings; these are sprinkled to complete the range of flavours of the salad.
Even the lime plays a part in representing luck. Named ‘kat zhai’ in Chinese, a phrase signals the welcoming of endless luck into your life.
Slices of raw fish is arguably the most sought out item of eating the salad. As fish represents one of the core auspicious symbols of Chinese culture, consuming the fish raw is seen as receiving its blessing in its near purest form.
Eating the salad
The act of tossing the salad itself has many cultural rituals. The higher your toss, the larger the ‘net’ you cast to bring in all the aforementioned prosperities, and the more mess you make counts as covering the ground of collecting well wishes.
Many see this act as satisfying their inner child, as eating cleanly and neatly as part of etiquette can be momentarily thrown out the proverbial window.
Note however, that sometimes these festivities can become a bit overzealous, and hardly any salad is left for consuming! You may not want to wear your best tops or jewelry if this is in the itinerary. Nevertheless, Chinese New Year celebrations must always start with this rambunctious, tasty, and healthy dish!