A strange title for a post, perhaps, but when I started researching my article on yu sheng I had trouble finding anyone to describe for me their ideal version. Most Malaysians and Singaporeans, it seems, are somewhat indifferent to this dish that is so integral to Chinese New Year in Malaysia and Singapore. Yes, it's lucky and yes, it should be a part of any New Year banquet, but the consensus seemed to be that it rarely inspires cravings.
And I know why. Most versions of yu sheng are, to my palate at least, gloppy, overly sweet piles of unidentifiable ingredients with little discernible flavor, a dish of vegetables and fish (yu sheng means raw or fresh fish) that tastes nothing like either. Having eaten a few versions, I was content to never try another. Until Sunday.
I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose, to have been converted to yu sheng at Sek Yuen, an old-timer on the KL restaurant scene where much of the staff is original to the place and the kitchen is still fueled by wood. The restaurant began serving yu sheng in the early sixties, a year or so after it was popularized in Singapore, and they haven't changed a thing about the dish since.
The yu sheng is assembled at a lucky red-clothed, triple-tiered prep area at the front of the restaurant. Every ingredient is made or prepared in-house, making the dish an incredibly labor-intensive endeavor. Many restaurants have simplified the process by outsourcing some ingredients and leaving others out altogether.
Before the yu sheng comes together the staff marinates fish slices (jellyfish is another option) and ginger matchsticks in sesame oil. Then pickled ginger (two kinds - white and red), pomelo sacs, pickled green papaya, shredded green onion, pickled shallots, carrot and jicama strings, chopped peanuts, sesame seeds, julienned lime leaves, and chopped cilantro are heaped onto a platter and anointed with a drizzle of plum sauce. The lot is showered with strips of deep-fried won ton skins, garnished with lime wedges and green and red packets of white pepper and cinnamon, and served with the marinated fish.
It's up to diners to empty their packets of pepper and cinnamon onto the fish and give it a good mix before adding it to the other ingredients. Then, a squeeze of lime and much tossing with chopsticks, preferably while chanting a few lucky phrases to auspiciously usher in the New Year.
Sek Yuen's yu sheng is a textural marvel - the combination of six fresh and pickled ingredients, cut to almost exactly the same shape and size, culminates in one big, satisfying crunch. It's sweet from the plum sauce, but also boasts varying shades of tartness from pickles, lime juice, and fragrant lime leaves. The overwhelming flavors are of fish and vegetables, spiced up with ginger two ways (pickled and fresh) and white pepper. The cinnamon adds a subtle warm note. Won ton crisps (most other versions use colored crunchies of unidentifiable origin) - sturdy, grease-less, and wheaty - are delicious enough to eat on their own. Kudos to the restaurant for its light hand with the dressing and for its use of sesame oil; I've had more than my share of yu sheng drenched in plain old cooking oil - blech!
Balance, balance, balance. We eat at Sek Yuen at least twice a month, often more, and walk away from every meal wondering at the magic worked in that kitchen. The combined knowledge of the restaurant's chefs and prep cooks gives rise to dishes that are nuanced, complex, and always balanced. The yu sheng is no different.
The best illustration of the care taken at Sek Yuen, I think, are those red and green envelopes. They're wrapped by hand and their jagged, uneven edges suggest one-by-one, scissor-cut origins. Each year, Sek Yuen's staff cuts thousands of pieces of paper into rough squares, lays them flat on a table, spoons ground white pepper and cinnamon in their centers, and folds in the four corners. All this even though pre-filled packets can be easily sourced from a supplier.
For us Chinese New Year has always meant extra vacation days and a travel adventure. From now on, it will also mean yu sheng at Sek Yuen.
If you're in KL, you have two more days to try it this year.
Sek Yuen Restoran, 313-315 Pudu (almost at Jalan Pasar), Kuala Lumpur. Tel. 3-9222-9457 (though if it's busy your call may well go unanswered). Lunch and dinner, closed Monday. Serving yu sheng through this Thursday, Feb 21.