top of page
Search

Throw, Scream, Eat: The Low Down on Lo Hei

By Kevin F. Cox, Culinary Explorer I recently spent nearly five years in Singapore writing about countless things to see and do. With the island’s rich tapestry of history and culture, there’s always something to say and to find a topic one need only to, well, go outside. Holidays like this month’s Chinese New Year offer a host of topics. A strange thing happens when you wander down unfamiliar streets or into buildings that you’ve passed so many times: you discover riches all around you. You smirk with wonderment and scratch your head in surprise at the fascinating people and places and things. And you fall in love with Singapore all over again and have to write about it. No wonder this paper is devoting an entire issue to the writing scene in Singapore. For me that love affair centered around one thing: food. From haute cuisine to hawker fare, food was everywhere, tickling my nose and beckoning me to float away on a waft of freshly baked bread or crisp roasted pork. In my case, I craved not the delicate clink of fine china and crystal but the flash and fire of a red hot wok; the sizzle and pop of noodles and chiles and meat and fish. I needed to be low to the ground, squatting at a well-bolted table in the shadow of an HDB, lost in the blaze of Singapore’s greatest treasure: street food. And I wanted to write about every bite.



I roamed every heartland neighborhood to the bewildered gaze of locals. I had become That Guy, the crazy ang moh with the camera, looking for the passion and story beneath each glowing wok and of the cooks and characters who made the magic happen. I ate everything without hesitation and captured it in words and images for all to taste. The deeper I plunged into this unadorned world of amazing street food, the more I had to say and the more people wanted to hear. And then I left, as if sucked through a vacuum back to a familiar place where I no longer fit. But I didn’t want to let my Singapore writing go. I didn’t just eat the food; I digested the culture, and I wanted to keep writing about it. Today, 9000 miles away, I still write about Singapore, but to a whole new audience because here, Singapore is exotic and unknown. Take Chinese New Year. Here in the States, it’s just a blip in the news. Here a goat is not a promise of prosperity (just a barnyard animal) and mandarin oranges are not passed around with a smile and the casual slip of a red envelope. But in Singapore, the Lunar New Year is a time for celebration of things to come; of casting upon friends and loved ones wishes of prosperity and good luck for the year ahead. And Singaporeans don’t bring it in gently; think bright lights and jacked-up prices on everything for a week to, y’know, kickstart said prosperity. But the most head in surprise at the fascinating people and places and things. And you fall in love with Singapore all over again and have to write about it.


For me, that love affair centered around one thing: food. From haute cuisine to hawker fare, food was everywhere, tickling my nose and beckoning me to float away on a waft of freshly baked bread or crisp roasted pork. In my case, I craved not the delicate clink of fine china and crystal but the flash and fire of a red hot wok; the sizzle and pop of noodles and chiles and meat and fish. I needed to be low to the ground, squatting at a well-bolted table in the shadow of an HDB, lost in the blaze of Singapore’s greatest treasure: street food. And I wanted to write about every bite. I roamed every heartland neighborhood to the bewildered gaze of locals. I had become That Guy, the crazy ang moh with the camera, looking for the passion and story beneath each glowing wok and of the cooks and characters who made the magic happen. I ate everything without hesitation and captured it in words and images for all to taste. The deeper I plunged into this unadorned world of amazing street food, the more I had to say and the more people wanted to hear. And then I left, as if sucked through a vacuum back to a familiar place where I no longer fit. But I didn’t want to let my Singapore writing go. I didn’t just eat the food; I digested the culture, and I wanted to keep writing about it.


Lunar New Year

Today, 9000 miles away, I still write about Singapore, but to a whole new audience because here, Singapore is exotic and unknown. Take Chinese New Year. Here in the States, it’s just a blip in the news. Here a goat is not a promise of prosperity (just a barnyard animal) and mandarin oranges are not passed around with a smile and the casual slip of a red envelope. But in Singapore, the Lunar New Year is a time for celebration of things to come; of casting upon friends and loved ones wishes of prosperity and good luck for the year ahead. And Singaporeans don’t bring it in gently; think bright lights and jacked-up prices on everything for a week to, y’know, kickstart said prosperity. But the most raucous display of the New Year festivities? Throwing food. Not just any food, mind you, but a specific dish, known as Yu Sheng, or “raw fish” and used in the traditional Lo Hei celebration to ensure new year abundance. Now that’s something to write about.



Perhaps dating back to ancient China, the contemporary version of Lo Hei was created in1964 in Singapore's very own Lai Wah Restaurant by chef and culinary king Than Mui Kai. His dream was to recapture the ancient Chinese tradition of sharing raw fish to bring luck and wealth in the Lunar New Year, but with a flick of the hand he added a little Singapore twist of airborne fish. It caught on quickly and despite its disappearance in China, Lo Hei has been celebrated annually in Singapore and Malaysia ever since. So it’s only natural that you, too, should embrace your expat experience and join in on the flying fish fun. It seems such a simple dish: slices of raw fish and vegetables layered in an eye-popping circular display of freshness, but that’s where the beauty ends. Because when the party begins, all hell breaks loose around the table so one should not undertake the Lo Hei celebration lightly. Indeed, there are two critical aspects of the event which must be understood and followed by all who try it it: first, the Yu Sheng dish itself and second, what to do with it.


The Dish

Yu Sheng is a Teochew-style raw fish salad consisting of up to twenty five ingredients and capped with slices of raw mackerel or salmon, shredded vegetables, nuts and a variety of sauces and condiments. Each ingredient represents a specific wish: raw fish for abundance; carrot for luck; chopped peanuts for gold, silver and eternal youth; daikon for a flourishing career; cinnamon for a sweet life, the list goes on. It’s the centerpiece of Lo Hei and, despite its once-a-year appearance during the Lunar New Year, it’s enjoyed in nearly every Chinese household, restaurant or group gathering across the Little Red Dot.


Image courtesy of Choo Yut Shing


The Celebration

It’s fish. It’s veg. It’s sticky sauce and tiny chopped nuts. And to properly celebrate Lo Hei, you have to, well, toss it all up in the air. But the correct manner of consuming the salad is essential. First, all diners must in unison grab chopsticks full of the salad from the large, communal platter in the middle of the table and throw them in the air seven times, not six, not eight, representing the seventh day of the Chinese new year. The words “Lo Hei” must be chanted loudly and with vigor with each fling of the food. The higher and messier the toss, the more fortune will prevail. Everyone at the table must participate, no shyness permitted here or one risks missing out on the prosperity that will surely ensue.


Image courtesy of Jonathan Lin


Afterwards, the mess across the table is pulled together by the host and served to each diner as the starter to a typically lavish Chinese meal. Not only is it fun to celebrate Lo Hei, but one bite of the pile on your plate and you’ll realize, it’s also delicious.


So as you celebrate this new Year of the Goat, gather together with friends and family, toss a little fish while yelling Lo Hei and bring some prosperity into your future. And then write about it or whatever else it is that captivates you in Singapore because the Little Red Dot is fertile soil for any writer. You’re surrounded by eye candy and things that surprise, excite and enthrall. Newness prevails in architecture, technology and even social structure, but at the same time, old Asian culture underlies the island, forming the base upon which everything else is built. And what does this mean for those of us wishing to put pen to paper? Paradise. This article originally appeared in the February 2015 edition of the Singapore American newspaper. Kevin is a food and travel writer for numerous publications and online sites. Kevin believes in a low-to-the-ground approach to discovering local food and is the founder of Foodwalkers, a culinary exploration network found at www.foodwalkers.com.

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page