Chinese New Year Celebrations fill the streets of Singapore, bright red lanterns, paper statuettes of this years’ model – The Monkey, towering topiaries of decorated orange trees, ribbons, bunting and loud music. The ubiquitous food, that one dish which everyone must partake a number of times however, is Yusheng. Every banquet for the holiday season, whether family or work related (celebrations last 10+ days) starts with this interactive course to signify good wishes for a successful and prosperous new year.
I first ate this dish at Toronto chef Susur Lee’s kitchen, a dish he has made signature under the name Singapore Slaw. I simply thought it was a concoction he developed in respect to his time cooking in Singapore, reminiscent of the colours, flavours and textures of the island nation. Of course, it is now clear that it is his take on a culturally important part of the Chinese cooking heritage, all about sharing the table and friendship. While his is planned for two or four diners, and delicately mixed by the waiter, the banquet style is typically set for tables of 10 and tossed with the dressing so exuberantly that it can easily get out of control by overzealous participants. The platter arrives with a palette of ingredients, mostly but not only vegetables, all cut into fine strips, plus a dressing, raw fish (to signify gold coins), pepper and five spice powder. Old meets new as one of the diners reads from a smartphone, proclaiming each step of seasoning and dressing, then with long chopsticks and the fury of a windstorm, the diners all reach in to mix and toss the salad into the air. Everyone shouts and mixes, and you might expect that it is all for show, just a nice little participation exercise but surprisingly, the version I ate with the Westin banquet staff was beautifully balanced, a delightful cacophony of texture and flavour. And once the dust settle, you settle in for a multi-course feast … ah. Oh, Happy New Year!