Poon Choi (Basin Food)

in smartsteem •  2 months ago 

Last Sunday, I went to a gathering organised by my artist friend Ernest. Some of you will remember, we had a birthday party at his place recently, and he cooked up a delicious meal for us. Last Sunday, his treat to us was a ‘poon choi.’

This was what Ernest cooked.
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Eight of us managed to finished the whole ‘poon choi’. The quantity was just nice. The food was of course simply divine. I think it is one of the best meals I have tasted. I love all the ingredients/dishes in the ‘poon choi’, and I enjoyed every mouthful of it.

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Ingredients – braised belly pork, abalone, fish maw, prawn, mushroom, scallop, white radish, meatball. Some rice at the bottom to soak up the gravy. Just a small sample of what we had.

Before dinner, there was the ‘prosperity toss’ for appetizer. - That will be another post. Stay tuned. And there was soup. I completely forgot to take a picture of the soup. It was lotus roots with pork ribs, dates, wolfberry... Delicious!

After dinner, there were fruits. Soursop, jack fruit and prunes.
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Now a little on ‘Poon choi’ and the story/history behind it.

‘Poon choi’ literally translated means a ‘basin vegetables’ or a basin of food. This is a traditional Cantonese dish served in the olden days in large wooden, porcelain or metal basins due to the communal style of consumption. The name ‘Poon Choi’, has been variously translated as ‘big bowl feast’, ‘basin feast’ or ‘Chinese casserole’. These days, there are all sorts of nice looking pots for the dish. People are also more affluent and creative now. They tend to create their own ‘poon choi’.

In the olden days, people will eat ‘poon choi’ during the Chinese New Year, and other celebrations, ceremonies, or major events. Nowadays, people can also purchase ‘poon choi’ in some specialised stores, or restaurants any time of the year. Therefore, ‘poon choi’ has become a meal that people can enjoy anywhere and anytime. Hosts might just do a ‘poon choi’ meal instead of the regular dishes.

Apparently, ‘poon choi’ was invented during the Song dynasty. Story has it that at that time, Song China was under attack by the Mongols, and the fleeing young Emperor ended up in Hong Kong. To serve the Emperor, as well as his army, the locals collected their best food available, cooked them, and, because there were not enough serving containers, they put the meal in large wooden washbasins.

I am sure that no matter how poor the villages are, the young Emperor didn’t have to eat out of the washbasin. But his men would have to. They wouldn’t have minded. They were pursued by their enemies, and were probably starving. To be alive and to have something to eat beats the alternative of being died.

Anyway, moving on... From that time onwards, ‘poon choi’ is served whenever there are celebrations connected with rituals, weddings, festivals and other local events as an expression of village dining culture.

Out of respect for their guests, the hosts put only a relatively small amount of vegetables in ‘poon choi’. The reason being, vegetables are not highly valued ingredients. In order to offer the best food during important annual events, villagers prefer to include mostly meat and seafood in ‘poon choi’.

At first glance, ‘poon choi’ might look easy to prepare. Some might think it is easy work for the host. Dump everything into the pot and serve. That is not how it is done. There are eight to ten ingredients in the dish. Each ingredient is a dish itself. So, you have to prepare the ingredients individually.

In days gone by, the ‘poon choi’ was layered – meaning one dish was heap on top of the other. The chef would decide which dish went on top and which to the bottom. Of course, the dish that took a longer time to cook would be at the bottom, while the easier to cook ones would be on top. Guests ate the food, layer by layer. The softer layers on top first. By the time they reached the bottom layer, the dish at the bottom would be tender by then.

Nowadays, the dishes are compartmentalized, and a electric cooker can be used to keep the ‘poon choi’ warm, while guests dine and talked.

In the restaurants, ‘poon choi’ comes in a variety of price categories. This allows people to choose the diversity of delicacies which they can afford. Relatively high priced ‘poon choi’ includes luxury food such as abalones, oyster, which people may select to gain prestige by showing that they are generous and wealthy. Those who prefer a reasonable price can have a tasty meal with more common ingredients.

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What a tasty looking dish! I can completely understand why it would only be made for special occasions, yet I could see how it could become a beloved "comfort" food as it became more readily available over the years. I enjoyed reading your description of the dish and setting, as well as about the rich history of `poon choi´in chinese culture. Great post! :)

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Very interesting sir Vincent..so if you get the deluxe version at a nice restaurant it will be expensive. But you don't have to worry about that because you have such generous friends. What is fish maw? I don't know about that pork belly!

Howdy Jonboy.

Fish maw is the swim bladder, or air bladder of the fish.

Pork belly if skilfully done is delicious.

  ·  2 months ago (edited)

The air bladder of the fish. What is that like, just a thin membrane? That doesn't sound very good. Oh yes I know about the flavoring of BBQ pork belly and all those variations I just don't like the thought of the item itself. lol. To eat I mean.

I will bring you to try some fish maw when you visit. I don't know how to describe it.

You don't eat bacon?

Oh man, bacon! I love bacon, one of my favorite things but I only eat it like once every 6 months because it's not exactly healthy. But yeah, it's wonderful.