Singapore - A bearish market and a ban on raw fish has not dampened the demand for yusheng - the prosperity toss made up of shredded vegetables and raw fish that has become a feature dish at Chinese New Year (CNY) celebrations here.
In fact, at some top restaurants demand for the quintessential must-have for the season has even risen, in tandem with the increase in the volume of CNY meals being served and booked here.
Peach Garden, for instance, noted a 5 per cent increase in the demand for its yusheng, while Tung Lok Group cited a 10 to 15 per cent increase in the amount of yusheng purchased compared to 2015.
"It's still very much a Chinese tradition to have yusheng (or) lo hei in Singapore," says Li Li Lau, assistant marketing manager at Tung Lok Group.
While there have been enquiries or concerns about the type of fish being used in the yusheng dish, all 11 restaurants BT spoke to reported no change or even higher demand for this CNY staple.
The ban on raw fish follows the outbreak of the Group B Streptococcus (GBS) bacteria, which saw 355 people being infected last year. Out of this group, 150 fell ill due to the Type III GBS ST283 strain linked to the consumption of raw freshwater fish, a spokesman from the Ministry of Health said. Ideally, the GBS bacteria does not pose a problem if the fish is well-cooked before consumption.
Additionally, yusheng vegetable suppliers noted that creative spins by restaurants have helped to sustain sales, since raw fish, which is a key ingredient in the dish, can be replaced by other options.
Hua Ting Cantonese Restaurant, for instance, is offering a fresh Hokkaido scallop and crispy conpoy lo hei this year, while Min Jiang at one north has come up with a fruity lo hei with bacon and white truffle oil. Still, many others are using substitutes such as abalones, lobsters or even clams.
Schools, which tend to be more particular about the well-being of their students, are going for the vegetarian option instead, just to play it safe, says Poh Shi Han, a business development executive at Sin Hwa Dee Foodstuff Industries Pte Ltd, which supplies prepacked yusheng and sauces. That being said, fans of the classic yusheng need not fret just yet, as some restaurants continue to offer salmon (or smoked salmon) - a saltwater fish quite unlike its freshwater cousin responsible for the health scare in the very first place.
As at last week, 21 food retailers have been given the green light to sell raw fish dishes featuring saltwater fish, Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources & Health Amy Khor highlighted on her Facebook feed.
Moreover, restaurants seem to be more prudent this year in the light of the GBS outbreak. According to the owner-chef of Majestic Restaurant, Yong Bing Ngen: "We don't sell freshwater fish in the restaurant. We do have customers requesting to replace raw salmon with abalone or crispy whitebait. In the past, we used to sell ikan parang (wolf herring) yusheng, (but) in view of the sensitive situation, we removed it this year and focused only on sashimi-grade salmon."
Interestingly, even as analysts predict sluggish growth for Singapore in the coming year amid a weakening manufacturing sector and a slowdown in China's economy, most people are still willing to splurge on reunion dinners.
To illustrate, restaurants that BT spoke to reported that they are mostly, if not fully, booked on the night of CNY eve for both seatings.
With the exception of two restaurants that cited a slower pace of bookings this year, a majority of the eateries BT contacted expect to be operating at full capacity that day, coupled with a minimum of 80 per cent being reserved on popular dates.
In fact, places such as Pan Pacific's Hai Tien Lo and Grand Shanghai Restaurant started receiving bookings from as early as a year ago, and the months leading up to the CNY.
By the same token, restaurants are observing a rising trend of customers ordering takeouts during this festive season. As general manager of Pan Pacific Singapore Gino Tan asserts: "The total number of takeaways for CNY has increased significantly over the years. We've seen an increase (of) 37 per cent comparing 2014 and 2015. Based on the current (order) rate, we expect to see a similar increase."
To cope with this heightened demand, Hai Tien Lo increased its takeaway offerings from 22 items in 2014 to 38 items this year.
Nonetheless, whether or not this takeout trend gains traction remains to be seen as people usually order takeaways during the CNY period itself.
Takeout or dine-in, one thing is clear - even without some raw freshwater fish, the demand for yusheng and CNY dinners is, fittingly, very much alive.
This article was first published on February 6, 2016.
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