I’ve never really celebrated Chinese New Year in any appropriate culinary fashion. Heck, I’d be content eating rabbit to mark the 15-day celebration of the Year of the Ox. It was my never ending quest for prosperity and good fortune that compelled me to grab two friends and head over to Skyway Malaysian Restaurant to say "gong xi fa cai" ("happy new year") Malaysian-style. That, and the recommendation of an old college buddy who’s been lamenting the lack of “lucky fish salad” in Scotland.
Fa cai yu sheng, or Fortune Sashimi, is a dish that's traditionally eaten on the seventh day of the new year, which is known as the common man's birthday. This year that day falls on Sunday, so you've got a couple of days to figure out whether you want to participate in this tradition. Skyway is actually serving until February 9, the last day of the Chinese New Year festivities. "Yu sheng" translates to "raw fish," but it's also a homophone for fortune, making it quite the auspicious meal.
Since it's a Chinese New Year's dish, yu sheng is rich in symbolism. That hong bao (lucky red envelope) that would normally hold money doesn't contain $8 though—it's filled with a mixture of five spice powder and pepper denoting a wish for good luck in the coming year. The little piles of ingredients skew toward the festive end of the flavor-color spectrum. There's shocking green matchsticks of fried taro, rice noodles, raisins, fried noodles, thin ribbons of orange peels, other assorted citrus fruits, and a host of ingredients we couldn't identify. We ordered a small, which runs $18.88. As far I'm concerned, that's a small price to pay for good fortune in the coming year. Bigger parties may wish to spring for a medium or large, $23.88 and $28.88, respectively.
Your waitress will place the raw salmon on top of the polychromatic assortment of ingredients, give it a squeeze of lime, and then anoint the whole lot with a mixture of plum sauce and oil. This is as good a time as any to enjoy a libation. You'll want to be in a festive mood for the next part of the yu sheng experience.
Now comes the fun. Everyone at the table digs in with their chopsticks and grabs the tangle of yu sheng ingredients, tossing it as high in the air as possible whilst uttering good wishes for the coming year. I thought it would be funny to say something like, "I hope don't get this stuff on my shirt," but since I'm all about good fortune I maintained as dignified a tone as one possibly can while tossing a confetti-like pile of ingredients skyward. It's said that the higher you toss your yu sheng, the luckier you'll be in the coming year. After the ingredients have been mixed, tear open that red envelope and sprinkle on the powder. You'll want to make note of the number on the inside flap. Ours was 7368. I actually played it yesterday, but it didn't win. Then again, winning the lottery wasn't my wish for the Year of the Ox.
So how did it taste? Sweet, crunchy, citrusy, and gingery, sort of like Malaysia's answer to fruitcake, but way better and helluva a lot more fun to eat. I feel luckier already.
Skyway Malaysian Restaurant
11 Allen Street, New York NY 10002 (at Canal, map)