Poon Choi – From Emperor’s Imperial Meal to the Much Favorited Chinese New Year Dish of Today

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Poon Choi – From Emperor’s Imperial Meal to the Much Favorited Chinese New Year Dish of Today

Cover Image via: SG Asia City

Poon Choi is a traditional food originally from Chang’an town in Guangdong Province and the newly formed territories of Hong Kong. But, if you were to assume that this is a hodgepodge of food containing a bunch of random ingredients being cooked together, you are quite mistaken! In the olden days, this specific dish was an Emperor’s treat!

This delicacy was prominent around neighboring villages, after being introduced and recommended by both the media and international food critics for nearly ten years, it started gaining traction in regions such as Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore. It gradually became one of the Chinese ‘must-have foods’ during New Year celebrations. The traditional Chinese cuisine used to be served in a wooden pot. After being modernized, the use of porcelain or stainless steel pots is preferred.

盆菜
盆菜

There are no ‘set rules’ for the ingredients of this dish, as it could be tweaked per the owner’s economic situation. It is up to them whether they feast like kings or have a thrifty and simple meal. Each ingredient is cooked separately, layer-by-layer starting at the bottom of the top. The bottom layer consists of ingredients which could absorb the taste and essence from those on top. Therefore, cabbage, white radish or pig skin is best. The second layer is made of stewed pork or meat which are soft and sort of ‘melts’ in your mouth. On top, the best ingredients are used. Chicken, fish, shrimp, abalone, or scallops are the perfect candidates for this layer. When eating, each layer would have its own unique taste, and you simply could not stop as a surprise comes with every bite! With this, this dish could be named as the ‘melting pot’ of tastes.

There are different opinions on the exact origin of this dish, but it seems most would agree that it involved a distressed emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty. At that time, the Mongolian army had stormed into the capital. Luckily, the Emperor aided by the Minister managed to flee and arrived in today’s Shenzhen district of Hong Kong. The locals kindly prepared food as aid. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough dishes to entertain these imperials as life was much simpler in rural areas. Thus, everyone chipped in and packed food in large pots before giving it to the officers. To decorate the dish and make it presentable, the best ingredients are placed on top. Since then, people of that region had a practice of eating Poon Choi whenever there is a celebration, such as the New Year, marriage, opening of new shrines and others.

盆菜
盆菜

Of course, some would beg to differ. As an example, Mr. Wo-ling, a food critic said that when he had his first Poon Choi in the fifties, weddings banquets are then conducted in a hierarchal manner. He noted that some of the VIPs were feasting on the ‘Nine Big Vessels’, which are the best ingredients found in Poon Choi. The latter dish is reserved for guests who are lower in status. The saying that ‘even the Emperor had eaten this’ is used as a ploy to let these guests believe that the host did not short treat them in the banquet. So, Poon Choi became quite controversial between the rich and the poor, and the story of the Emperor is just a beautiful legend.

No matter which party is correct, Poon Choi is truly a dish from the Guangdong region, naturally bringing with it many auspicious meanings dreamed up by the imaginative Cantonese. For example, a bowl bringing together a variety of delicacies is known as a treasure bowl. The Chinese also believe that the arrangement of ingredients in an orderly fashion from top to bottom symbolizes an orderly structure. When eating this dish, the scene with everyone gathered together symbolizes reunion. These claims, allowed Poon Choi to continue evolving and became a significant dish when celebrating the New Year.

 

Translated from: 盆菜:一盆百味的年菜,原来曾经是款待落难皇帝的御膳?!

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