Fine, fine traditions

The second yu sheng of the New Year

At the family dinner tonight, talk naturally turned towards the origins of yu sheng, which seems to have exploded in popularity in Singapore these past few Chinese New Years. I honestly don't remember eating it at all when I was growing up, but it's everywhere these days, from fancy fine dining establishments to humble corner coffeeshops where you can pick up a veritable kaleidoscope of vegetable-and-fish goodness to toss at home.

Everyone says the dish originated in Singapore and is gaining popularity in Malaysia. This prompted my mom's recollection that my grandmother didn't allow her or her siblings to have any when they were kids, on the off chance that it would upset their stomachs (which I guess would be bad luck for the New Year, not to mention necessitating inconvenient and, back then, not necessarily affordable medical treatment).

The reminiscence and common wisdom notwithstanding, I thought it might be interesting to scrounge up a slightly more authoritative source for the claim. As it turns out, The Straits Times reported on it in 2003:
While yu sheng was created in Singapore in the 1960s, the origin of this Chinese New Year (CNY) delicacy can be traced back to a simple village practice held by Chinese fishermen in the past. It was traditional for fishermen along the coast of Guangzhou to celebrate the seventh day of CNY, or ren ri, by feasting on their catch as fish, or yu, is synonymous with abundance and prosperity. This cultural practice was then brought to Singapore by migrants where it evolved into fish porridge found at roadside stalls. It was only in the mid-1960s that master chefs Hooi Kok Wai, Lau Yoke Pui, Sin Leong and Than Mui Kai decided to create a unique CNY dish using the strips of raw fish from the porridge. Combining the raw slices of a local fish with a melange of ingredients including shredded carrots, turnips, ginger and jellyfish, yu sheng was intended to be colourful, tasty and, above all, symbolically auspicious for the allegorically-minded Chinese. (cited in A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English)
Happily enough, today happens to be the seventh day of the New Year, i.e. 人日 (ren ri), i.e. everyone's symbolic birthday, i.e. the day for eating yu sheng anyway. Apparently, on this day, some Singapore Chinese families have the tradition of having the whole family home for what seems to be a second reunion dinner. I was surprised by the number of friends and colleagues who were completely blasé when I mentioned that we had a family dinner tonight, as if it was the expected thing to do.

But it's just coincidence, really, because my parents just like having us do dinner and yu sheng with them (since we spend the reunion dinner with Terz's parents) and we just pick an evening that works for everyone. Which is my way of saying that we follow some traditions 'cause they're convenient and others 'cause they're fun, which altogether isn't a very consistent cultural doctrine, but hey look: more yu sheng from earlier this week.

The first yu sheng of the New Year

Tonight's yu sheng (in the picture at the start of this entry) was my second of the New Year and Terz's first; my first was this one with colleagues on Wednesday. As a point of comparison, Wednesday's yu sheng was my boss's seventh for the New Year. Seventh. I don't think I've ever had seven in one year before.


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At 2/04/2006 9:05 pm , Blogger NARDAC said...

I'm bloody fed up with all your yu-sheng posts because it's sooooo frustrating to read about it when you can't get any. urgh.

At 2/05/2006 2:16 am , Blogger Ondine said...

As of lunch, Packrat and I have had yu-sheng about 9 times! We're all lo-hei-ed out. And the taste of ginger hasn't got any more pleasant. =(

At 2/05/2006 10:29 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

7 is possible.

I've already had 4 (maternal and paternal side of the family, my NUS classmates as well as with my mates) so far.

2 more lined up at various colleagues' places over the next few days. :)

At 2/06/2006 10:05 am , Blogger cour marly said...

I am still not much of a yusheng fan... it's all that preserved stuff. I've only had it once though, for work, and have missed two work-related ones so far. Thankfully my friends are not much of yusheng fans so I'm spared there!

At 2/08/2006 9:41 pm , Blogger naixuhs said...

Mmm....yu sheng....must be nostalgia from living away from Singapore for so many years but it is my most treasured memory of Chinese New Year from my childhood. Perhaps I will return to Singapore one day during the CNY to partake of some again.


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