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The idea was to merge the styles of eating raw fish practised by two dialect groups, mix in a variety of raw vegetables and pickled aromatics in an elaborate, colourful plating, and pepper the ritual with auspicious incantations during tossing.

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Masterchef Sin Leong.

Lo-Hei Legend

Masterchef Sin Leong is one of four chefs who invented the auspicious Chinese New Year raw fish dish
Mar 2, 2018 5:50 AM

TODAY IS THE LAST DAY of the Lunar New Year, and masterchef Sin Leong is finally able to take a breather from the period of lo-hei feasting at his restaurant. This "golden stretch" of Lunar New Year - typically the first 15 days - is when family, friends and business associates gather at the table to celebrate the coming of spring.

At the start of these meals, lo-hei is de-rigueur as diners toss their way to good fortune for the year ahead. But what they might not realise is they are also paying homage to Red Star Restaurant masterchefs Sin Leong and Hooi Kok Wai, two of the original four chefs who "invented" the dish.

That claim to fame is controversial and benighted with claims and counter-claims from many others here as well as in Malaysia. The tradition of tossing raw fish isn't new in southern Chinese cuisine: Teochews boast their own version of the dish; while the people of Shunde, a district in Guangzhou, would catch freshwater carp from the pond, slice it, and toss it with ginger and spring onion.

The story goes, however, that over supper somewhere and sometime in 1964, chefs Sin, Hooi, Tham Yew Kai and Lau Yoke Pui sat down to brainstorm a way to increase their restaurants' takings during Chinese New Year.

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An idea took root. Why not merge the styles of eating raw fish practised by two dialect groups, mix in a variety of raw vegetables and pickled aromatics in an elaborate, colourful plating, and pepper the ritual with auspicious incantations during the tossing?

The first two years after the launch of the dish was touch-and-go: diners were not used to the heaping amalgam of raw salad and sweet sauce, not even when the chefs resorted to serving it free to regular customers.

Gradually it became accepted and even loved. Lo-hei during Chinese New Year quickly skyrocketed to being a born-in-Singapore "national dish" and neighbouring countries soon followed.

At 91, chef Sin Leong is arguably the oldest chef in Singapore still actively running a 1,000-seat restaurant. Nothing seems able to slow him down since he started his own business way back in 1962. That was when he left Cathay Restaurant to found a licensed cooking school in Aljunied Road.

To this day the Sin Leong Chinese Cooking Institute is registered with the Ministry of Education and issues official cooking certificates.

Chef Sin met chefs Hooi, Tham and Lau when they were all apprentices under the same Hong Kong-born master at Cathay Restaurant. Deciding to venture into the restaurant business, the four chefs went their separate ways and among the restaurants they opened were Sin Leong Restaurant in 1968, the Red Ruby Restaurant and Red Star Restaurant in the early 1970s. Chefs Tham Yew Kai and Lau Yoke Pui have since passed away, leaving chefs Sin and Hooi to devote themselves to running Red Star Restaurant.

Even as a nonagenarian, chef Sin is still active in mind and body; in fact he was busy posing for selfies with admiring diners and even pushing dim sum trolleys during the Chinese New Year rush at his restaurant.

He is also game for new ideas and ventures, such as an upcoming mega-event where he and chef Hooi are presenting a glorious dining experience inspired by the 1950s to 100 guests from a Chinese newspaper.

Chef Sin muses, "Younger chefs do not have the same passion as I did when I was young. In the past, we would observe how the master cooked and secretly jotted down the recipes and tips. These days, the young chefs simply throw away my written recipes once the service is over."

Apart from running his business, chef Sin also raises money to care for the elderly through his active involvement in the management boards of Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, community centres and other charitable organisations. The model for active ageing recently hosted lunch for more than 160 senior citizens from daycare centres - proving that, if you do what you love, age is nothing but a number.