Yu Sheng Demystified | Ingredients, Auspicious Greetings, and Meanings

Yu Sheng Ingredients, Festive Greetings, and Meanings
Yu Sheng Ingredients, Festive Greetings, and Meanings
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There is no other dish more representative of Singaporean Chinese New Year than Yu Sheng. Here’s what to know about the many colourful ingredients.


Here’s a quick listicle about something that many people would be doing in Singapore this week.

Lohei. The tossing of Yu Sheng. The one Chinese New Year activity that some Southeast Asian Chinese consider the most important (and) delicious ritual of any New Year.

🙂

I actually wanted to do this list last year. But clumsy me messed up the ingredients and superstitious me didn’t feel it was auspicious to go buy another platter just for photo taking. And so on, and so forth …

So I wanted till this year to write this article on Yu Sheng ingredients and their symbolic meanings. You bet I was very careful with my platter this time around too!

A couple of disclaimers before I start. This is NOT a sponsored post. For the pictures, I used a platter from Don Don Donki; I bought this last week for a pre-CNY toss. The info about the Yu Sheng ingredients, on the other hand, mainly comes from the label of the Dian Xiao Er platter my family ate at home last year.

Don’t quote me on this, too, but I think Yu Sheng ingredients might slightly vary from restaurant to restaurant, although certain stuff like red ginger and crispy crackers are always there. I’ve ever tossed a two-person platter that had no more than eight ingredients. (Not counting the fish)

Yu Sheng Ingredients and Auspicious Phrases at a Glance

  • Raw Fish/Abalone | Nián nián yǒuyú (年年有余)
  • Cinnamon Powder and Pepper | Wǔfú línmén (五福临门)
  • Radish Slices | Qīngchūn yǒng zhù (青春永驻)
  • Carrot Shreds | Hóngyùn dāngtóu (鸿运当头)
  • Pickled Cucumber | Bùbù gāoshēng (步步高升)
  • Pickled Vegetables | Jǐnshàng tiānhuā (锦上添花)
  • Pickled Bulbous Onion | Fēngshēng shuǐqǐ (风生水起)
  • Red Ginger | Wànshòu wújiāng (万寿无疆)
  • Winter Melon | Suìsuì píng’ān (岁岁平安)
  • Mandarin Orange Peels | Jíxiáng rúyì (吉祥如意)
  • Roasted Peanut Bits | Jīnyín mǎnwū (金银满屋)
  • Sesame Seeds | Shēngyì xīnglóng (生意兴隆)
  • Oil | Shùn shùnlì lì (顺顺利利)
  • Yu Sheng Sauce | Tiántián mìmì (甜甜蜜蜜)
  • Crackers | Biàndì huángjīn (遍地黄金)
  • Lime | Dàjí dàlì (大吉大利)

My Interpretations of Yu Sheng Auspicious Phrases and Symbolic Meanings

Believe it, or not, I couldn’t, at all, find any references about how the associated auspicious phrases were derived. Every restaurant and publication more or less quotes the same lucky phrases tagged to each ingredient, but none gave any “explanation.”

My notes below are thus my guesses. Guesses to the best of my knowledge. Please don’t hurl CNY curses at me if I’ve gotten anything wrong!



Raw Salmon
Raw Fish / Abalone | Niánnián yǒuyú (年年有余) [Photo by CA Creative on Unsplash]

This is the ingredient with the most obvious symbolic meaning. Fish in Mandarin has the same sound as the character for excess (余). The associated auspicious phrase thus means “excess/abundance every year.”

Pepper and Cinnamon Powder | Wǔfú línmén (五福临门)

I’m not sure why these two spices would represent “five blessings upon your door.” My guess is that it’s because cinnamon power is called Wǔxiāng Fěn (五香粉) in Mandarin, which translates to “five fragrance powder.”

Carrot and Radish for Yu Sheng
Left: Radish Slices | Qīngchūn yǒng zhù (青春永驻). Right: Carrot Shreds | Hóngyùn dāngtóu (鸿运当头)

Okay, it’s actually supposed to be green radish, but what’s given in my Donki platter is completely white. Anyway, the symbolic phrase means “ever youthful.” Not sure why radish implies this.

As for carrot slices, carrots are are called Hóng Luóbo (红萝卜) in Mandarin. The first character has the same sound as the first character for the associated auspicious phrase, which means “great luck upon ye head.”

Pickled Cucumber Ingredients
Picked Cucumber | Bùbù gāoshēng (步步高升)

I confess. I have no idea why green pickled cucumber means “rising step by step.” I suspect the associated phrase doesn’t have any real relationship with this Yu Sheng ingredient.

Some platters include Pickled Vegetables too, and the associated festive phrase is supposedly Jǐnshàng tiānhuā (锦上添花). Unfortunately, my platter for this year doesn’t include this ingredient.

As for what Jǐnshàng tiānhuā means, it’s a little troublesome to translate, so bear with me. The phrase means “to make something even better,” with the idiom making use of the imagery of further adding exquisite embroidery to an already lovely brocade. I guess white pickled vegetables reminded people of such embroidery. It could also be because the pickled vegetable used in Yu Sheng is sometimes called Jǐnguā (锦瓜).

Pickled Bulbous Onion | Yu Sheng Ingredients
Pickled Bulbous Onion | Fēngshēng shuǐqǐ (风生水起)

“The wind blows and the water rises.” I think the associated auspicious phrase came about because onions grow shoots easily when planted. (They are sold at CNY bazaars)

Red Ginger
Red Ginger | Wànshòu wújiāng (万寿无疆). Normal ginger slices is usually included in any Yu Sheng platter too. (Both give the mix a slightly fiery kick.

This one is straightforward. Ginger is Jiāng (姜) in Chinese. The derived phrase means “longevity.”

Preserved Winter Melon Used in Yu Sheng
Preserved Winter Melon | Suìsuì píng’ān (岁岁平安)

Winter melon is one of the usual ingredients of the Eight Treasures Rice, a really sweet glutinous rice dish eaten on festive occasions for all things good like luck and harmony. When used in Yu Sheng, I presume it brings over some of those goodnesses, with the associated festive phrase meaning “peace year after year.”



Mandarin Orange Peels
Mandarin Orange Peels | Jíxiáng rúyì (吉祥如意)

“Auspicious and as you wish.” Mandarin oranges have that meaning in Chinese New Year culture.

Left: Roasted Peanut Bits | Jīnyín mǎnwū (金银满屋). Right: Sesame Seeds | Shēngyì xīnglóng (生意兴隆).

Jīnyín mǎnwū means “a house full of gold and silver.”  Well, I guess peanut bits all over the rest of the Yu Sheng ingredients, under the right restaurant lighting, do resemble gold dust. (Some restaurants use actual gold dust)

Shēngyì xīnglóng means “prosperous business.” Why do sesame seeds represent this? Well, some Chinese references that I found stated that frying sesame seeds during the Chinese New Year is an important ritual, with the crackling sound and great fragrance symbolising luck and prosperity. I confess I’ve never heard about this, though.

Oil | Shùnshùn lìlì (顺顺利利) [Image by Honglin Mu from Pixabay]

Shùnshùn lìlì means “smooth sailing.” I’m sure you can guess why oil represents this. Some alternate resources state that oil instead represents Cáiyuán guǎngjìn (财源广进), or “bountiful wealth,” which also makes sense.

Yu Sheng Sauce
Yu Sheng (Raw Fish) Sauce | Tiántián mìmì (甜甜蜜蜜)

Tiántián mìmì means “sweet.” It could alternatively mean “blissful.” If you’re wondering why “fish sauce” would have such a connotation, it’s because the sauce is anything but fishy. Instead, it is sweet, almost like the plum sauce served with Cantonese roasted meat. Wait a minute, according to this Zaobao feature, the sauce is actually made with Cantonese plum sauce.

Yu Sheng Crackers
Crackers | Biàndì huángjīn (遍地黄金)

The auspicious phrase means “gold all over the ground!” I’m sure you can guess why, yes? Don’t these irresistible munchies resemble gold bricks on the floor after they are scattered over the other ingredients? By the way, I LOVE this stuff. I ensure there’s never a piece of gold left when the plate is taken away.

Lime | Dàjí dàlì (大吉大利) [Image by Gabor Mika from Pixabay]

This final ingredient baffles me. To be honest, I think it’s only used to ensure the raw fish slices aren’t too raw and fishy, if you know what I mean. The phrase Dàjí dàlì, or “big luck, was then added probably because lime reminds people of tangerines, which has the same sound as (吉).

A Brief History of Yu Sheng

Yu Sheng is so widely eaten in Singapore during the Chinese New Year period that it’s often forgotten that it’s actually not a traditional Chinese festive dish. The dish is Southeast Asian. Previously, more commonly called Qīcǎi Yúshēng (七彩鱼生), or “seven colours raw fish,” too.

The origins of Yu Sheng are also debated. Singaporean media claim that the dish was conceptualised by four chefs during the 1960s. (These gentlemen were from the top restaurants of then: Lai Wah, Dragon-Phoenix, and Sin Leong) Like chicken rice and laksa and so many other “SG dishes,” Malaysia bluntly disagrees and says the modern dish began with them. Since 2009, Yu Sheng has been recognised as a national heritage dish in Malaysia.

What both countries can agree on is that Southeast Asian Yu Sheng is not an original dish. Southern Chinese villages long had a tradition of eating raw fish slices. To celebrate the Seventh Day of the New Year, Chinese communities had customs of eating special dishes too. The Seventh Day is commonly known as Rénrì (人日), or the birthday of man. Most if not all such Rénrì festive dishes involve seven different ingredients, such as the Teochew Qīyàng cài (七样菜).*



Up to the mid-80s, I remember Yu Sheng only being served on Rénrì; hardly throughout the festive period like it is today. By the way, lohei is a Cantonese term. in Mandarin, the pronunciation is Lāoqǐ (捞起). This beloved exhortation means “scoop it up!” A call for all things auspicious.

Yu Sheng is widely regarded as a Cantonese thing.

* If you’re curious about the Teochew version of Yu Sheng, Chin Lee Restaurant is serving that for Chinese New Year 2024.

Don Don Donki Yu Sheng Platter
My Don Don Donki platter pre-lohei.
Yu Sheng Salad Bowl
I gathered the leftovers (without abalone) and made this Quinoa-salad alike thingy. Ate the whole thing at 2.30 am after watching a Netflix movie! I love Yu Sheng, but without the fishy bits!

Other festive celebrations in Singapore

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Yu Sheng | Ingredients, Auspicious Greetings, and Meanings
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Yu Sheng | Ingredients, Auspicious Greetings, and Meanings
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Yu Sheng is the most representative Southeast Asian Chinese New Year dish. Here’s a rundown of the ingredients and their festive greetings.
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