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Throw, scream, eat: the low down on Lo Hei

During the Chinese New Year holiday, we’ve all been eating Lo Hei, but what is it exactly?

The Singaporean Chinese take the Lunar New Year very seriously. It’s a time to celebrate things to come, casting upon friends and loved ones wishes of prosperity, abundance, and good luck for the year ahead. But they don’t bring in the new year gently; think bright lights and jacked-up prices on everything for a week to help kickstart that prosperity. But perhaps the most raucous display of the Lunar New Year festivities is throwing food. Not just any food, mind you, but a specific dish, known as Yu Sheng, translated literally to mean “raw fish” and used in the traditional Lo Hei celebration to signify abundance for all who participate.

There is some controversy as to the origin of Lo Hei and the bestowing of prosperity to all in the new year. Perhaps dating back to ancient China, the contemporary version was created in 1964 right here at Singapore’s Lai Wah Restaurant by chef and culinary king Than Mui Kai. And it has been celebrated annually here and in 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 veg layered in an eye-popping circular display of freshness. But that’s where the beauty ends because all hell breaks loose around the table when the party begins. So one should not undertake the Lo Hei celebration lightly. Indeed, two critical aspects of the event must be understood and followed by all daring enough to undertake it: first, the Yu Sheng dish itself, and second, what to do with it.

The Dish

Yu Sheng is a complex, Teochew-style raw fish salad consisting of up to twenty-five ingredients and capped with thin slices of raw mackerel (traditional) or salmon (modern), 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 this Little Red Dot.

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 chopstickfuls 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, often 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. Afterward, the mess across the table is pulled together 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 Rabbit, gather with friends and family, toss a little fish while yelling Lo Hei, and bring some prosperity into your future!

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