Friday, December 26, 2008

Recipe: Chinese New Year Lo Hei

The answer is, Hua Ting at Orchard Hotel makes the best yu sheng. Why? Because they put in parma ham with the cantouloupe, crispy fish skin and candied preserved papaya with smoked salmon and salmon roe. It is yu sheng worth crying for and it retails from the price of $56 onward.

That important question out of the way, there are three very key (personal) principles to remember about yu sheng. The first is, I love it very much and I have eaten a lot of s*** over the years that passed as yu sheng. No more. Proud modern Chinese should not eat greying salmon and over-oiled dry carrots any more than they do newts and monkey brains, so I am resolved to no longer bother wasting those calories.

Second, the best surity of love and heart, is to take charge of situations and put something of yourself in them and maybe even walk away with a deeper appreciation of our traditions and food. Third, with the economy the way it is, we may need all the prosperity we can save, so what better way to save your pocketbook and waistband, then by trying your hand at making this dish for your reunion dinner.

To make it less horrifying a thought, this DIY idea, I thought I would do a little research into what the experts say and to increase the value add of this post, I've even researched what you are meant to say, when you mimic the lady in the cheongsum. This will impress all your relatives and really, we should all learn these phrases so that the practice doesn't die out, like our cultural language heritage, like our good government always says.

I have a good idea- to include this as a chapter of the primary school chinese textbook or hao gong min. In our identity-starved society, we really should tailor our learning more around our nuances, pragmatism and creations, rather than forever idolising historical Chinese iconography, half of which the kids don't remember nor practice anyway.

Before I get shot off the air for being politically incorrect, let me just speed through the one minute history of this very local but seasonal dish. Four chefs in Singapore, Messrs Sin Leong, Hooi Kok Wai, Lau Yoke Pui and Than Mui Kai invented this dish using raw fish slices used in simple fish porridge and combining it with a variety of ingredients like shredded lettuce, carrots, turnips, red and yellow ginger, pickled onions, jellyfish and sun dried plums with a sweet-sour sauce.

Each food would to symbolise particular significant well wishes because each wish had a pronounciation approximating the Chinese name of the food. Fishermen from the cost of Guangzhou province in southern China celebrated the seventh day of the new year by feasting on fish, which symbolised wealth. Yu sheng is traditionally eaten on Ren-ri, which is the common birthday to all mankind.

The elaborate family-sized platter and the attendant ritual of standing around the dinner table has been re-exported back to China, where it can be found in some major cities. I've sized this to feed 20 people, which is surprise, surprise, what the size of my own reunion dinner will likely be.

1. According to tradition, the fish is laid onto the plate first. At the table, you offer New Year greetings. Say Say Gong Xi Fa Cai 恭喜发财 (getting rich) and Wan Shi Ru Yi (to be smooth sailing) when putting down the Yu Sheng on the table. However, according to another text I read, you don't add the fish till later and in fact that text assumes the carrot part is on the plate first. Irritatingly, there are seperate phrases for the fish, the carrot, the daikon and the green radish, which I guess means that to get the full impact of impressing your grandmother, you have to start with the lettuce first.

2. Oh well. Write to me if you have a good idea on which ingredient goes first. I shall just put that the lettuce goes first. The base of the salad is in fact 1/2 a lettuce, thinly sliced. For all the veggies, you want to use a mandolin to slice them up very finely and then keep them in ice cold water, till you are ready to toss the salad. This is important, or your veggies will dry out nastily.

3. Add 500g of sashimi grade salmon, sliced against the grain and marinated with a little sesame oil and even soy-wasabi if you feel like. You can also use trout or sea bass or if you want to be fancy, use abalone or Japanese swordfish, tuna or horse mackeral. You can buy these from the wet market and clean them yourself but I think the more sanitary way would probably be to go to a Japanese supermarket sushi counter and get blocks of sashimi. The salmon is a large 20cm by 5 cm block for about $15 . Say Nian Nian You Yu 年年有余 (to have a surplus every year) and Long Ma Jing Shen (to enjoy great health).

4. Squeeze 3 small limes. Add this, then follow with 6 segments of pomelo (you have to deskin the pomelo and flake out the 6 segments). Say Da Ji Da Li 大吉大利 (to be very auspicious) when adding limejuice/pomelo.

5. Add 2 tsp five spice/cinnamon powder and 2 tsp white pepper. Say Yi Ben Wan Li 一本万利 (business to be flourishing) or 鸿运当头 Hong Yun Dang Tou or 五福临门 Wu Fu Lin Men when putting pepper and five-spice powder to the Yu Sheng

6. You then add oil, to circle the ingredients, increasing all profits 10,000 times and encouraging money to flow in all directions. This sounds like a good thing. What is not good, is to use nasty cooking oil, which when injested, probably makes your heart valves look like the interior of your kitchen sink pipe. What I would recommend using is grapeseed oil or walnut oil or even flaxseed oil. These are largely tasteless oils that are very light and high in omega-3, which improves mental and brain function. Walnut oil in particular, has a slightly nutty flavour, a beautiful oil to use for salads. Say You Shui Duo Duo 油水多多 (business to be flourishing) when adding oil and sauces.

7. This is the second part that confuses me, most texts say you should add oil before the carrots, radish and all the other ingredients but don't we add oil right at the very end, in Singapore? Oh well. Add 2 shredded carrots and say Hong Yun Dang Tou. Again, you want to use a mandolin to slice this up very finely yet neatly (not in shards and pieces) and then keep it cold water, till you are ready to toss the salad. Add 2 shredded green radishes, symbolising eternal youth say Qing Chun Chang Zhu. Wish especially those older aunties who give generous hong bao. Add 1.5 white daikon, shredded and say Feng sheng shui qi and bu bu gao sheng- prosperity in business and promotion at work.

8. Then add the condiments. First, 5 Tbsp sesame seeds- toast these and rattle them around the tray for 10 minutes earlier in the day so that they are roasted and crispy. Say Sheng Yi Xing Long 生意兴隆 (business to be flourishing) when sprinkling the sesame powder.

9. Then add 3/4 cup chopped roasted peanuts Say Jin Yin Man Wu 金银满屋 or 金沙满堂 (hallways of golden sands) when sprinkling the golden peanut powder

10. If you haven't added the oil, drizzle the oil at the end, with the plum sauce. I would recommend a mix of 150 ml walnut oil, 30 ml sesame oil and 150ml plum sauce. Say You Shui Duo Duo 油水多多 (business to be flourishing) when adding oil and sauces to the Yu Sheng. You can also say Rong Hua Fu Gui (May you enjoy prosperity) and Tian Tian Mi Mi 甜甜蜜蜜 (May sweetness enter your life) for the plum sauce.

11. Add the Pok Choy crispy crackers- does anyone know where to buy these? You can also make your own home-alternatives by deep frying sliced up wanton skins. Say Man Di Huang Jin 满地黄金 (Full Floor of Gold) when adding the crackers.

12. When tossing the Yu Sheng, toss 7 times with loud shouts of Lo Hei and say 身体建康 shen ti jian kang (good health),万事如意 (success in all tasks), 生意兴隆 sheng yi xing long (business prosperity), 捞个风升水起 Lao Ge Feng Shen Shui Qi (Toss higher and higher, till the wind and oceans rise up for a good year ahead)

13. Additional ingredients to add include: a bowl of ikura, a bowl of crispy dried flat fish or crispy Japenese eel, or even jellyfish. You can also add 1/2 cup preserved melon or candied citrus strips (these are the sweet ingredients, so slice finely!), 1/2 cup preserved leek strips or sweetened ginger strips (this is the bright green stuff, which I prefer to skip). You can replace the latter items with 1/2 cup of finely shredded yam.

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