Let's yee sang for another round of food fight

  • Nation
  • Monday, 30 Jan 2012

SINGAPORE: A plate of raw fish and julienned vegetables was all it took to reignite a food fight' between Singaporeans and Malaysians.

Following food ownership debates over bak kut teh and Hainanese chicken rice, the bone of contention this time is the popular Chinese New Year dish yee sang.

The hullabaloo first erupted at the northern end of the Causeway earlier this month, when Singaporean celebrity foodie K.F. Seetoh first drew attention to a finance and accounting professor's Facebook page that revolved around local heritage.

Writing in his weekly food column in The New Paper on Jan 3, Seetoh noted Professor Tan Wee Cheng's list of six things in Singapore that he would like to see entered on Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

The items are the ritual and custom of serving yee sang, Singapore cuisine, Singlish, Nine Emperor Gods Festival, the yum seng ritual in weddings and Hungry Ghost Festival stage performances.

Yee sang is a raw fish salad served in a pre-determined sequence, with the server reciting wishes of luck and prosperity evoked by the names of the ingredients used.

But Prof Tan's suggestion quickly sparked strong protests from across the Causeway after it was reported in the Malaysian media, which is believed to have picked up Seetoh's column.

Those fiercely protective of their food culture quickly retorted that yusheng belonged to Malaysia.

Unesco's list, which includes social practices, rituals and festive events passed on to a nation's descendants, can help a country promote its heritage as part of efforts to draw tourists.

It was a reversal of the food war that had erupted back in 2009, when Malaysian Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen claimed that bak kut teh and Hainanese chicken rice, among other dishes, were authentically Malaysian, drawing many Singaporeans' ire.

Food and beverage operators and food experts told the Chinese language Guang Ming Daily that the dish originated in Malaysia, but was better promoted in Singapore.

"The Malaysian government has indeed not done enough to promote its cuisine," complained one critic.

"Even when Malaysia is a pioneer of a dish, it often loses its first-mover advantage and right of authenticity."

Dr Ng, too, waded into the controversy and backed her countrymen in claiming ownership of the auspicious dish.

The fiery response came as a surprise to Prof Tan, who had made the posting in 2010. He issued a statement two weeks ago to stress that his posting was simply made "to stimulate a public discussion on Unesco World Heritage" - and not to spark a border row.

"It was definitely not a serious proposal to list the above items," he said. "Unesco has detailed and stringent criteria for listing and I believe that it is premature to consider the listing of some of these items at the present moment."

So, where is yee sang really from, then?

According to Singapore food magazine editor Kimberley Song, the salad was first introduced to Singapore in the 1970s by four renowned chefs - Mr Sin Leong, Mr Hooi Kok Wai, Mr Tham Yu Kai and Mr Lau Yoke Pui - from southern China, where the fish dish has its roots.

"Every year, chefs must think of something novel to develop their business. They are the ones who invented this special way of eating yusheng,' she said.

But she downplayed the issue of where it really came from.

"It doesn't matter who invented the dish first," she said. "The more important thing is who can fine-tune the dish to suit the modern taste better." - The Straits Times / Asia News Network

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