My Favorite Lunar New Year Dish: Fish Salad for a Crowd
My last Lunar New Year should have been my most exciting. Down the streets of Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, I rode down the streets on a motorcycle dodging firecrackers while setting off my own. The food was good, too, but there was something missing: a dish from back home in Flushing that for years has been my New Year's mainstay.
Yee sang (yu sheng in Mandarin) is a large-format salad of raw fish, shredded vegetables, and crunchy bits eaten exclusively during Lunar New Year. It originated in mainland China, but these days it's most commonly found in Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. And in Flushing at Malay Restaurant, which serves my favorite version of the dish—Malaysia included.*
It's a dish rich in symbolism. "Yee sang" translates to "raw fish," a symbol of good luck, as it's also a homophone for an increase in abundance. And fish is also a sign of wealth, that you can afford to serve more than just rice, vegetables, and eggs.
But the symbolism runs deeper than the ingredients—there's also the way the dish is eaten. All the elements are segregated, then traditionally, friends and family circle around the platter, chopsticks at the ready, and toss it all together. It's a noisy affair; you may start with an easy "gong hay fat choy!" (happy new year) and then move on to shots of well-wishing for wealth, health, and good luck.
Malay Restaurant's yee sang starts with a base of raw salmon, then adds: fried dough squares (bok chui), shredded daikon, shredded carrots, fresh grapefruit segments, sliced dried persimmons, sliced dried kumquats, pickled ginger, pickled daikon, pickled shallot, jellyfish strips, fried taro root sticks, chopped peanuts, sesame seeds, sesame oil, lime juice, cilantro and five spice powder tossed in a plum-based dressing. The five spice powder comes in a red envelope you tear open and sprinkle on top of the salad before tossing; on the envelope is a random number eaters often use for lottery tickets.
The salad is well balanced. There's enough crunch from the bok chui, taro sticks, and peanuts, and the sauce doesn't overwhelm the other ingredients. Grapefruit and pickled vegetables cut through the fatty fried dough while the dried persimmons and kumquats mellow the sour flavors.
The dish is offered for the 15 days of Lunar New Year, this year running through February 14th. It's available in three sizes depending on your crowd. The small costs $33.88 and serves three to five; a medium serves six to eight, and a large nine to twelve. There are other Lunar New Year dishes on the menu, but take note: tables can fill up during this time, especially for large parties, so make a reservation to be safe if you can.