|Place of origin||Hong Kong|
|Region or state||Guangdong|
Poon choi or puhn choi (pronounced: pun4 coi3 in Cantonese), pén cài in pinyin, is a traditional Cantonese festival meal composed of many layers of different ingredients. It is served in large wooden, porcelain or metal basins due to the communal style of consumption. The Chinese name, transliterated as Poon choi, has been variously translated as "big bowl feast", "basin cuisine" or "Chinese casserole".
According to tradition, Poon choi was invented during the late Song Dynasty. When Mongol troops invaded Song China, the young Emperor fled to the area around Guangdong Province and Hong Kong. To serve the Emperor as well as his army, the locals collected all their best food available, cooked it. But there were not enough serving containers available, so they put the resulting meal in large wooden washbasins.
Association with the New Territories
In any event, Poon choi is associated with the early settlers of the New Territories, who had been driven south of the mainland by a series of barbarian invasions in China between the 13th and 17th centuries.
Walled village culture is well preserved in the New Territories and Poon choi gradually became a traditional dish of the walled villages. As Poon choi is a large dish portioned to be suitable for a communal meal, it was served whenever there were celebrations connected with rituals, weddings, festivals, ancestor worship and other local events as an expression of village dining culture.
Poon Choi includes ingredients such as pork, beef, lamb, chicken, duck, abalone, ginseng, shark fin, fish maw, prawn, crab, dried mushroom, fishballs, squid, dried eel, dried shrimp, pigskin, bean curd and Chinese white radish.
Out of respect to their guests the villagers put only a relatively small amount of vegetables in Poon choi. To walled villagers, 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.
Preparation of ingredients
Three days are traditionally required for preparing and cooking the meal.
The first day: A trip to the mountains is required to gather firewood, which must be chopped to size.
In ancient times when people did not have liquefied petroleum gas, plenty of firewood had to be available to cook all the food. Today, there are still many walled villages that adhere to the use of wood for fuel because the residents believe that liquefied petroleum gas is less strong and does not supply as much heat or last as long as firewood. Only a wood fire is believed to produce the real flavour of the dish.
The second day: Buy plenty of fresh ingredients
The walled village uses fresh ingredients, rarely frozen or refrigerated products, to make Poon choi. This is not only because these rural communities do not have refrigerators. It is also believed that only fresh ingredients can produce fresh and delicious Poon choi. Because traditional Poon choi is used for festive banquets in ancestral halls it is considered disrespectful to the ancestors and gods if canned, frozen, or ready-to-eat products are used in its preparation.
The third day: Stew the pork
It takes a full day to achieve the desired taste so the stewing of the pork starts early in the morning. The Ancients cooked Weitou pork for at least 10 hours in order for the ‘half fat-half lean’ pork bellies to become tender and tasty.
A few decades ago, preparing Poon choi was considered a test for chefs because the long cooking time on a wooden stove required a great deal of patience and stove control.
Attentive layering of the ingredients contributes to the taste of the whole dish.
Poon choi is special in that it is composed of many layers of different ingredients. Traditionally, it is also eaten layer by layer instead of first "stirring everything up", although impatient diners may first snatch the popular daikon radish at the bottom with the help of the shared serving chopsticks.
Ingredients such as Chinese radishes, pigskins and bean curd are placed in the bottom of the container. In the middle of the dish there are usually pork and Chinese dried mushrooms. On the top, meat, seafood, and rare ingredients like abalone and sea cucumber are to be found.
It contributes to the attractiveness of Poon choi if dried noodles with egg are put on top to symbolise a crown.
Relatively dry ingredients such as seafood are placed on the top while other ingredients that can absorb sauce well are assigned to the bottom of the basin. This allows sauces to flow down to the bottom of the basin as people start eating from the top.
Poon choi is often served during religious rituals, festivals, special occasions and wedding banquets in the open areas of villages. From the 1990s, It became popular among urban dwellers as well and it can be enjoyed at many Cantonese restaurants in the autumn and winter or on special occasions throughout the year.
Cultural values in the walled villages
1. Showing gratitude to ancestors
The fact that villagers use only the best and freshest ingredients is a way they pay respect to their ancestors. This behaviour illustrates the character of traditional Chinese people, who keep their ancestors in mind and remain grateful to them. It also reflects their reputation of being very hospitable.
2. Teamwork and unity
Poon choi requires much manpower to prepare and cook the ingredients. So whenever there are any major events, respected villagers become the main chefs, leading and instructing the rest of the village in preparing the meal. In other words, cooking Poon choi requires teamwork among villagers, which unites them.
3. Family lineages
It is also noteworthy that different walled villages have different cooking method for preparing Poon choi in keeping with their own customs. The Poon choi recipes of every village are kept secret and not divulged to people who do not belong to the village. The recipe is regarded as a village inheritance passed from villager to villager and father to son over generations. Poon choi is thus a symbol of the continuity of the village and local family lineages.
Enjoying Poon choi demonstrates equality because the rich and the poor eat it together. There is no complicated etiquette, everyone can join in.
If villagers do not hold a Poon choi feast, it means, for example, that a village does not approve of or accept a particular marriage.
Manner of eating
Traditional Poon choi is served in a big wooden basin. There is one on each table and every person at the table takes food from the basin, layer by layer, from the top to the bottom.
Today, people use 'Gun Fai' (clean chopsticks used to move food from serving basin to personal bowl) to get the food. This more hygienic practice allows the diner to pick out particular pieces of food from the bottom of the serving basin as well. It is also becoming more acceptable to use these chopsticks to mix and turn over the food. Symbolic meanings are attached to this new custom: it causes people to work together, and it is an attempt to encourage fortune and luck coming to them.
Poon Choi Characteristics
Poon choi is a traditional food system in the walled villages. Whether it is festival celebration or worship ancestors, it is related to Poon choi. The villagers' gathering of basin meal is a crucial process in “confirmation of identity". Any family with a boy newly born will light up a lamp in the ancestral hall and invite the villagers to participate in the “lamp gathering", that is a Poon choi feast to celebrate the new male. After the ceremony was completed, the newborn male was officially recognized as a member of the village and had the right to inherit the property. As for the wedding tradition, the couple will raise a day to invite relatives to the Poon choi feast, which implies they are recognized the marriage. Also, after the spring and autumn ancestral worship, they reunited and ate Poon choi together.
The Poon choi is symbolized to "unity". In the traditional Poon choi feast, people are not sent the invitation cards to the villagers. Only a red notice of the Poon Choi feast will be posted at the door of the village, their relatives and friends will naturally come to this festival. The villagers used the Poon choi feast to reach the whole village without any distinction, becoming an individual, united and harmonious. This symbolic meaning has been passed down to the present day, Poon choi is no longer limited in the walled village. It has been widely developed in Hong Kong, people will eat Poon choi during the Chinese New Year and other dinner party.
Modern Poon choi
Reasons for popularity
Poon choi meals are becoming more and more popular, one of the reasons being promotion by mass media, which widely publicise Poon choi events, such as the 1997 large-scale Poon choi banquet, and the Poon Choi banquet held by Heung Yee Kuk. Another reason is the economic downturn. Since Poon choi contains a large amount of many ingredients, Hong Kong people think the cost is lower than other types of restaurant meals. Poon choi also represents Hong Kong’s food culture and creativity. Although it is a traditional cuisine of Hong Kong walled villages the ingredients have changed over the past decades and become more diversified to suit peoples' varying palates and tastes.
Nowadays, Poon Choi stores are being launched in the urban districts. To maintain their competitiveness, these stores provide various conveniences and varieties to fulfill consumer needs and wants. They also invest the name Poon choi with meanings mostly symbolic of fortune as a gimmick to attract people.
In the past, citizens had to take the time to visit the walled villages in order to enjoy Poon choi. It was of course also a valuable opportunity for them to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a while.
Nowadays, eating Poon choi is not only limited to people living in or visiting walled villages. During festivals, urban citizens can now enjoy Poon choi from ubiquitous Chinese fast food restaurant, such as Café de Coral, Fairwood. Even when it is not festival time, residents can also purchase Poon choi in some specialised stores, like 八味香帝皇盆菜專門店, 洪運正宗盆菜, Seamart, etc. Therefore, Poon choi has become a meal that people can enjoy anywhere and anytime.
In 2003, a Poon choi feast was held in the former Kai Tak airport. It had 660 tables, seating 12 people per table; together with the staff a total of nearly ten thousand people participated. This event broke the world record for the highest number of people gathered to eating Poon choi.
Delivery service is provided so that the stores can ensure that all people, especially those living far away, can enjoy Poon choi and purchase it from their stores. Delivery service is no doubt convenient when there are activities organised by local organisations or the government which feature a Poon choi feast. As these customers order bulk amounts, the stores give discounts or provide free materials, like tables, a gas stove, and tableware together with the Poon choi.
Ordering by phone or online enables customers to conveniently order Poon choi, since it eliminate the need for them to take time to visit the stores. The stores immediately start preparation once they have received the order, increasing efficiency.
The advertising leaflets from these stores usually offer customers a choice of big, medium and small amounts of Poon choi. With standard quantities and prices, people can easily determine how much they wish to order. Standardisation also reduces conflicts between the store and customers.
At present, stores use an aluminium foil cover to retain the heat of the wrapped Poon choi. Together with a large plastic bag with handles to bear the weight, this meal can easily be transported. No doubt these innovations ease the burden on customers in a hurry.
Different from traditional reheating methods, nowadays restaurants use a portable gas stove to warm the Poon choi before it is served. It can also be used at a table to maintain the warmth continuously and hence guarantee the quality and taste.
In the past, people ate Poon choi with rice only, but now they have more choices. They may choose other carbohydrates, like noodles or udon, depending on their eating habits.
Providing a variety of price categories allows people also to choose the diversity of delicacies which they can afford. Relatively high priced Poon choi includes luxury food such as abalones, shark fin, oyster, which people may select to gain honour by showing that they are generous and wealthy. Those who prefer a reasonable price can have a tasty meal with more common ingredients.
As an international hub, Hong Kong can provide diners with a variety of flavours. There is now available Japanese Poon choi, curry Poon choi, Western Poon choi, and vegetarian Poon choi, all in a bid to fulfill different needs and wants of customers, whether locals or tourists.
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