There’s a big platter in the middle of the table. As someone tosses slices of raw fish onto it, we all cheer: nin nin yau yu. Then the carrots go in, and it’s a roar of hong wen dong tau. Everyone puts their chopsticks in and mixes the ingredients together, tossing them as high as they can. This goes on for a while, as various components of our lo hei are thrown in.
Lo hei, also known as yee sang or ‘prosperity toss’, is a raw fish salad eaten during Chinese New Year, popular among Chinese communities in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Everyone gathers around the table as ingredients are added one by one, while saying auspicious greetings. Each ingredient is usually a homonym of a word in a classic New Year saying. For instance, in nin nin yau yu (‘let there be abundance every year’), yu is the pronunciation for both ‘abundance’ and ‘fish’.
In Cantonese cooking – the Chinese cuisine I know best – uncooked foods aren’t generally eaten. That’s not the case with Chaozhou cuisine (also known as Teochew and Chiuchow). Though the city is in eastern Guangdong province, its people have always identified as Chaozhou, rather than Cantonese, and proudly hold onto their own dialect and cuisine. There’s a large contingent of Chaozhou people in Singapore.
Eating raw fish remains common in Chaozhou, but the tradition of eating lo hei as a convivial group activity is believed to have emerged in Singapore in the 1960s. Many say that the idea came from the chefs at Lai Wah Restaurant, an old-school Cantonese eatery that opened in 1963.
The practice has spread far and wide, and it’s hard to imagine a Chinese New Year celebration in Singapore without a joyous volcano of sliced fish, julienned vegetables, crispy wonton skins and crushed peanuts accompanied by eruptions of laughter and greetings.
Many Singaporean families make it at home, but restaurants are intent on one-upping each other each year. One of the most decadent is found at Shang Palace, in the Shangri-La Singapore – last year, ingredients included poached lobster, abalone, edible flowers and dried figs.
The dish has also arrived in Hong Kong. Modern Chinese restaurant Ho Lee Fook offers its own spin, using hamachi sashimi and sweet and sour yuzu and plum dressing.
Janice Leung Hayes is a Hong Kong-based food writer
Cathay Pacific flies to Singapore from Hong Kong and Bangkok 63 times a week