On the eve of Chinese New Year, the have-must dish on every Cantonese dinner table is the magnificent and auspicious poon choi, which contains up to 20 luxury ingredients served in a big wooden or claypot bowl. The dish literally translates to “basin feast” because the dish was originally served in a washbasin.
It was commonly believed that the dish was invented during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) to serve a young emperor when he and his army fled to the area around Guangdong province and Hong Kong. To treat them, local villagers cooked all the best food available and placed them in big washbasins for sharing.
With all the delicacies served together in a round container, the dish fosters auspicious meanings of unity and prosperity, and is served during traditional holidays and celebrations.
Cooking the dish is tedious work; it can take up to four days, including time spent preparing the ingredients. Each ingredient needs to be cooked separately, and then layered in a container and cooked again slowly with gravy.
Eating poon choi on Chinese New Year’s eve is a family tradition, especially in the Cantonese-speaking regions in South China. Although today many families skip the tedious work, they don’t skip the food, whether they eat out or have it delivered to their home.
We had a brief conversation with Cheng Chi Keung, executive Chinese chef at Yue, the Chinese restaurant at Sheraton Grand Beijing Dongcheng Hotel, to get to know the dish a bit more on a personal level.
A Hong Kong native, the 58-year-old Cheng has worked in Beijing for 27 years and calls himself an “old Beijinger”. No matter how busy he is, he cooks this dish for his family in Hong Kong every year.
Where did you have this dish last year?
At home with my family in Hong Kong.
How long does it take to make this dish at home from scratch?
Four days, if counting the process of soaking dried ingredients.
How many ingredients are there in the dish?
Usually between 10-20.
How are the ingredients organized in the basin?
Vegetables such as radish and taro are placed at the bottom so they can be bathed in the broth longer to get a richer taste. The premium ingredients such as abalone, fish maw and scallops are placed on the top. The rest of the ingredients such as tofu and pork are placed in the middle.
What’s the correct way to eat it?
Start from the top, and enjoy as it is prepared—layer by layer.
On Spring Festival eve, do people cook this dish at home in Hong Kong?
Yes, it is a tradition. But nowadays, more and more people prefer to eat in the restaurant or have it delivered to home. Many Hong Kong restaurants have poon choi delivery service.
Do you make this dish every year?
Almost every year. It is our family tradition.
How long do restaurants sell poon choi for during Spring Festival?
Usually until the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.
Besides Spring Festival, when else is the dish served?
When there are celebrations connected with rituals, such as weddings, birthdays and ancestral worship.