Singapore may be known for glittering skyscrapers, glossy designer shops and hosting power meetings with international leaders, but the island nation’s success could be due to another tour de force altogether.

The country has a secret weapon: a salad. For each Chinese New Year, chefs throughout Singapore create a raw-fish salad that when tossed is said to guarantee prosperity. You’ll find them bowed over their chopping boards, slicing and dicing an array of flavourful ingredients, each of which embodies its own special power and meaning.

The origin of the dish, called yu sheng (which plays on the sign for ‘yu’ that means both ‘fish’ and ‘abundance’, and ‘sheng’, which can mean ‘raw’ or ‘life’), is one of legend. With its roots in ancient China, the dish is said to have been invented by a young couple who survived on fish and vinegar when they were trapped during a storm; while others say that yu sheng was created by fishermen in China’s Guangzhou province who would eat their catch to celebrate 'Human Day' – the birth of man – on the seventh day of the Chinese New Year.

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When the dish was brought to Singapore and Malaysia by Chinese immigrants in the 1930s, it looked very little like the ‘prosperity salad’ that’s tossed today. Back then the simple street food was sold from hawker carts and served either Jiangmen-style, a small salad of raw fish, shredded ginger, lettuce strips and spring onion that the customer seasoned with salt, sugar and vinegar; or Teochew-style, where the customer would wrap a piece of grass carp in a lettuce leaf. Both versions were available throughout the year, but were most often ordered by people on Human Day since the Chinese symbol for ‘fish’ also represents ‘abundance’, so it’s seen as a lucky food for mankind.

It remained that way until Loke Ching Fatt from Seremban in Malaysia created the original version of yu sheng (yee sang) as early as the 1940s, which remains popular in Malaysia to this day. Then, in 1964, four Singaporean chefs created a new, more colourful version for the island-state.

These chefs are held in such high esteem in Singapore that they are known as the ‘Four Heavenly Chefs’: Lau Yoke Pui, Tham Yui Kai, Hooi Kok Wai and Sin Leong. Lau and Tham have since sadly passed away, but Sin, 91, and Hooi, 79, can still be found every day working at their bustling Red Star Restaurant near River Valley (which they have co-owned for the past 44 years.

As I walked through the glass doors into the much-loved restaurant, I was greeted by an army of aunties pushing steaming dim sum carts between the legions of round tables. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to a room that seats 900, it’s clear that both chefs have a good head for business. And that was their reason, they say, for creating yu sheng. They needed a celebration dish that would help boost their takings for Chinese New Year as many people would eat at home during the festivities and restaurants would be quiet.

The Chinese New Year festivities, which last for 15 days, run from January to February depending on the lunar calendar. The focus of any New Year is the Reunion Dinner, held on Chinese New Year’s Eve – the night before the first day of Chinese New Year – when family members would return home and traditionally dine on steamboat (hot pot), waxed duck and Chinese sausage. However, the Four Heavenly Kings were ready to change that.

It’s seen as a lucky food for mankind

The chefs had worked together as apprentices at the famed (and now-closed) Cathay Restaurant in Singapore. After leaving, they each launched their own culinary careers and became partners in each other’s businesses. They would meet regularly to brainstorm new recipes, and the festive yu sheng was the result of one of these gatherings.

To find inspiration for their festive dish, the chefs decided to look at what was traditionally eaten at New Year and was seen as lucky. That meant the dish needed to include raw fish due to its association with good fortune. And the chefs loved the idea of creating a celebration dish from one of their favourite street-food meals. On the street you would mix the yu sheng yourself, but the chefs saw an opportunity to create a more colourful, flavoursome and luxurious version that families could mix together.

Working with the idea that fish represented abundance, Sin said they started to build up the rest of the dish with other ingredients in the same vein. The Singaporean chefs chose colourful ingredients, adding golden crackers and standardised the sauce. Until this point, the sauce made from vinegar, sugar and sesame oil could be sour (extra vinegar) or sweet (more sugar) according to how the customer mixed it. The Heavenly Chefs created one sauce that would become the taste of Singapore’s yu sheng. “It gave the dish its soul,” said Chris Hooi, the son of Chef Hooi, who now runs the Dragon Phoenix restaurant where the dish was first launched.

The finished dish, which was set upon a large circular serving platter, featured orange, pepper, salmon, vegetable oil, plum sauce, crackers and crushed peanuts – many of which are homonyms, with their Chinese sign having a lucky double meaning in the Chinese language. Each ingredient was placed in a separate small pile around the edge of the plate to give the customers the chance to mix the salad. It made the perfect celebratory centrepiece to any dining table. The new Singaporean yu sheng was also recognisable by its colourful mound of vegetables at the centre of the plate – shredded white and green radish and carrots – while the Malaysian yee sang laid its ingredients out in a flatter format like a serving dish of crudites.

It made the perfect celebratory centrepiece to any dining table

It didn’t take long to come up with this initial idea, Hooi said, but it took them years to perfect Singapore’s new dish. The new yu sheng was first launched at the chefs’ Lai Wah Restaurant in 1964 and then rolled out to their other restaurants.

But from the moment they placed the celebratory platter in front of diners, the dish was literally taken to the next level. As each of the Chinese restaurants featured round tables – to squeeze on more people and allow easier access to the shared dishes – the only way diners could reach the dish was to stand. When they stood, they immediately felt ready to celebrate and started to toss the salad with their chopsticks with gusto.

Because the chefs had chosen ingredients with lucky meanings, guests started to recite a blessing as they added each one. With the fish they would say ‘nian nian you yu’ (‘abundance throughout the year’); when pouring the oil they’d repeat ‘cai yuan guang jin’ (‘numerous sources of wealth’). ‘Tian tian mi mi’ (‘sweet and loving relationships’) was for the plum sauce, while pepper was announced with ‘zhao cai jin bao’ (‘attract wealth and treasures’). Finally, the crackers, which were said to represent pillows of gold, had the exclamation ‘man di huang jin’ (‘may your home be filled with gold’).

The foodie-loving Singaporeans soon fell in love with their version of yu sheng and started to host yu sheng dinners, where they would invite groups of friends or colleagues to toss the celebratory dish with them during the festive season. It wasn’t long before yu sheng started to be sold at other restaurants across the island.

As the increase in yu sheng dinners grew, so did the size of the dish and the rituals. More ingredients were added so larger groups of diners could enjoy the dish. And then, in the 1970s, giant chopsticks, which were usually used to cook noodles in the kitchen, started to appear on the dining table to help the guests toss their oversized salad.

Exuberant diners swore that the higher they tossed the salad, the more luck it would attract. So the festive yu sheng received a new name of ‘lo hei’, which means ‘tossing up’ good fortune.

Today, Singaporeans still join together to toss the lo hei, and still embrace the same rituals. After gathering around the table, they will greet each other with the phrase ‘gong xi fa cai’ (which means ‘congratulations for your wealth’), then one member of the family will start to combine the ingredients. As each ingredient is added, they will say its phrase out loud and then the guests will repeat it, before they toss the salad seven times in unison.

When I spoke to the two Heavenly Kings, they were surprised and delighted that their dish has become such an important part of the Chinese New Year festivities in Singapore, and were thrilled other chefs have taken it forward.

You eat with your eyes, then your nose and finally your mouth

However, when I told them that a version of this former street food dish sold last year for S$999, they seemed somewhat amazed, as their own dish in Red Star costs just S$80. But when they saw a photograph of a Pekingese dog sculpted out of salad ingredients (that included edible gold leaf and champagne jelly) by executive chef Leong Chee Yeng of the Jade restaurant at the Fullerton Hotel, Sin nodded in appreciation. “It’s beautiful. You eat with your eyes, then your nose and finally your mouth,” he said.

Later that week I asked Leong how he feels about reinventing such a legendary dish. “Yu sheng is commonly reinterpreted in several ways, but I ensure that when I create a new interpretation, the original components of yu sheng are retained,” he said, explaining that it still features the raw shredded vegetables – which he used to create the shape of dog’s body – and also references the golden crackers, except his ingredient is gold leaf. Luckily for us, he also creates more traditional versions using salmon and raw carrot, starting from S$78 for two to five people.

But no matter how lo hei is served, there’s no denying its popularity. And maybe the greatest acknowledgment of how successful Singapore’s lo hei has become is that it can now be found at Reunion Dinners in Hong Kong and even parts of Greater China, which was the home of the original street dish.

Chris Hooi told why me he thinks it’s proved so successful. “The dish is an ice-breaker. It is interactive and creates a platform for people to exchange well wishes during the Lunar New Year. The tossing is the fun part – but we encourage people to keep the tossing within the plate so they don’t waste those tasty ingredients.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story failed to acknowledge that yu sheng has been part of Chinese New Year celebrations in Malaysia since the 1940s. We apologise for the error, and we have amended the article to properly reflect the contributions of both countries and to reflect the importance of the dish to both cultures.

The Ritual of Eating is a BBC Travel series that explores interesting culinary rituals and food etiquette around the world.

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