12 Feb 2021
Pandemic-driven lockdowns have flattened our sense of time, and so one family decided to ask the hard question: who said you could only have yee sang at New Year?
When it first appeared on the dining table sometime in the middle of October last year, it looked just like regular salad. After the first forkful: “This tastes like yee sang.”
My mother smirks. “That’s because it is.”
This wasn’t the first time we’d broken with festive tradition—no, the first blow was dealt mid-2019 when we held a reunion dinner redux for my older sister who had just returned from Toronto after a two-year absence.
We tossed salmon and shredded vegetables in the stale humidity of my aunty’s Subang Jaya house, giggling at the absurdity of it. The living room was decorated like it really was New Year when in reality, it was July. We served our matriarchs cups of tea and pretended to be fluent in the Cantonese blessings that we knew by sound, not speech. We set off the firecrackers saved from months before. We had the exact same menu as the first reunion dinner, but somehow it tasted better: steamed fish swirled with ginger and soy sauce; fried chicken crisp to the bite; zai choy glimmering a soft rose gold.
It has been years since we’ve all been together. Someone is always travelling, always leaving, always working.
A do-over for my sister felt right. Tossing yee sang in July? Highly recommended.
And here we were again: yee sang in the middle of October, in the middle of a pandemic, months from the first days of the Lunar New Year. We’ve served it again and again for months now.
Malaysian cuisine is full of all these shoulds—assam laksa should be like this; perfect nasi lemak should be like that—so you would think there’d be something odd about remixing the yee sang rules, but instead it just felt like we were reclaiming the holiday and the right to feed ourselves whatever the hell we wanted. We were reclaiming our time from this virus-fuelled time suck.
In the face of all that’s happened, what’s a few broken traditions here or there?
You could say that yee sang was an invention borne of broken traditions.
As the story goes, a chef in Seremban, Loke Ching Fatt, wanted to drum up some business in the aftermath of WWII by creating a product that would capitalise on the Chinese community’s habitual New Year extravagance and their love of food. When ol’ immigrant ingenuity struck, Loke came up with a dish that combined various yusheng traditions and an irresistible sauce in holy matrimony, the whole thing tied together by the drama of the toss, the blessings and the banquet. How could anyone resist?
Loke’s tradition-breaking yee sang became the seed of a nationwide obsession that has since spread beyond Malaysia itself, inspiring countless variants to the point of muddling the original recipe.
There is yee sang with raw fish, or yee sang with abalone; yee sang with beef carpaccio (please never do this), yee sang with watermelon and grapes, yee sang with prawn and tomato. Yee sang for vegans, yee sang for omnivores, yee sang for flexitarians. Yee sang for everyone.
In Loke’s story, you can see the hand of history itself. Cuisines are products of history and tradition, but they are also the children of necessity. Their shapes and functions suggestive of the cultures carried by immigrants like precious jewels from home, but always responsive to what’s available, what’s affordable, what’s necessary.
Maybe we first broke tradition when we decided to make the yee sang ourselves.
By right, we should be ordering it from some restaurant or buying it from the grocery store: isn’t that how the first eaters of yee sang did it? Why make so much work for ourselves?
2017 was different: my newly-retired aunty decided to make our reunion dinner yee sang so it was fresh and healthy. She sliced and diced for hours until there was a mountain range of lettuce, carrot and radish. These she arranged in peaks and valleys on the only platter in the house big enough to fit this countryful of vegetables. We did the toss and faked the blessings in English—good grades! a new job! good boyfriend!—and that first bite was not perfect but close.
There was a smugness in avoiding the exorbitant costs of in-restaurant yee sang, but more than that, the salaciousness of knowing we’d outdone the chef. Unravelled the magician’s trick. Cracked the face of tradition itself, and started our own.
Loke Ching Fatt would have been proud.
My mother tried her hand the next year, determined to one-up my aunty, and this time—this time it was perfect. The tangy plum sauce (only Lee Kum Kee, friends), levelled by lime and honey, counteracting the sour bite of pickled leeks. The freshness of ice-soaked carrot, radish, lettuce; the crunch of toasted nuts and sesame seeds; crackled keropok hoarded from Terengganu—altogether, it makes me shiver.
In Kuala Lumpur, you could set your calendars to the appearance of certain foods at each time of year. When TTDI swells with lemang sellers, it’s time for Ramadan and Raya; with Mid-Autumn, out come the mooncakes and peanuts, the lantern animals dripping colourful wax. Deepavali is murukku, Christmas is roast lamb, and Chinese New Year is yee sang, pineapple tarts, kuih kapit.
Each celebration and its foods are invitations to be reminded of something new, of the gift of time turning over our fears and mistakes. For me, the turning of foods helps us know how and what to turn our attention towards over the course of the year: gratitude, family, abundance, sacrifice, the end of suffering, the future.
The pandemic has flattened our sense of time. We cannot gather to celebrate, and without the shift of season and celebration, time has taken on still, disquieting quality. Turned around and squashed our sense of it. What’s left when we have lost our idea of self amid the endless wash of days that all look the same?
And yet people have found a way to persist.
Over pandemic-ridden social media, I witnessed friends taking up culinary arms against a sea of troubles, and embark on involved, time-consuming food adventures: sourdough, checker-box cookies, rendang, fiddly kuih bangkit, pandan layer cake, murukku. It was like watching the festive calendar get put into a blender and dishes spat out at random.
Late last year, the pineapple tarts manifested twice—at CNY, and before Christmas—appearing like magic from our usual biscuit guy. It was strange to sit by the blinking lights of the Christmas tree as I bit into the pastry’s perfect butteriness and the jammy pineapple centre, head flush with thoughts of the past and coming Lunar New Year.
Time is a mess, but in the space between January 2020 and January 2021—before the virus, between lockdowns, dreaming in its aftermath—it occurs to me that maybe things like gratitude and joy are still possible whether or not the festivities continue.
What if we reimagine our relationship to festivity, and discover that celebratory feelings aren’t bound by a calendar? Time doesn’t care about the arbitrary limits we put on it, and we shouldn’t rely on it to tell us when to break with tradition and just go for it. Why wait for a rainy day to proclaim your blessings over a pile of vegetables and create a mess? Why deny yourself the riches of curry-drenched lemang, or the mooncake you squirrelled away in the back of your freezer?
Honey, the apocalypse is here. Eat the pineapple tart. Toss that yee sang. Joy is still possible.
To make Samantha’s mom’s yee sang, see the recipe here.
Samantha Cheh is a writer and eater based in Kuala Lumpur. For more information on her work, click here or follow her on Twitter.
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