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Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

History of Hakka Poon Choi from Village Feast to Global Chinese New Year Dish 客家盆菜

Hakka_Poon_Choi

Poon Choi 盆菜 literally "basin dish" is a Hakka Chinese custom that is now a well established Chinese New Year celebration tradition in Chinese communities around the world. (It is known as Pen Cai in Mandarin Chinese.)

The Hakka people originated in Henan region south of the Yellow River. They first moved south during the oppressive Qin dynasty founded in 246 BC. Since then, the Hakka people who remained distinct from the "locals" wherever they settled, were kept moving south with each change of dynasties. By the Yuan dynasty (1271 to 1368), Hakka people settled in Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian provinces. From there, Hakka people migrated around the world but their numbers are still concentrated in Guangdong, Guangxi and Fujian. (Image credit Wikipedia)


Hakka people lived in distinctive walled villages which are fortresses as they are not always welcomed by the locals. When Hakka people moved into new areas there were disputes over land with the locals. Of course, the enmity is long past and the Hakka communities today are well accepted, integrated and live in harmony with the locals. (Image credit Wikipedia)


There are a few legends about the origins of poon choi.

One legend has it that a Song dynasty emperor came to visit his southern realm. He stopped at a Hakka walled village in Guangdong province. The poor villagers did not have any special dish to present the emperor, so they put together their best in one wooden basin. They were all humble ingredients from the land and river but the emperor enjoyed it more than palace cuisine. (Image credit Wikipedia)


Since then, Hakka Chinese serve poon choi for their esteemed guests and on special occasions like weddings, major birthdays, Chinese New Year, etc.


Another legend has it that poon choi is a dish eaten during qing ming or tomb sweeping festival. Food offerings were brought to the ancestors' tombs. After the rituals, the food offerings were put together in a wooden basin and eaten by all present like a picnic at the tomb.



Whatever the origin, poon choi today is associated with celebrations, unity, re-union, community, shared blessings and joy. Poon choi is a popular main dish at Chinese New Year re-union dinners around the world.



A poon choi dish typically has 10 ingredients. It is a huge dish able to feed around 10 people at the table. The dish take around 3 days to prepare as it has many layers of ingredients (or component dishes). (Image credit Wikipedia)

The large container is round to represent wholeness and unity. Traditionally, it is wooden basin but nowadays steel basins or large claypots are the norm.

Inexpensive, common ingredients like boiled or stewed radish usually line the bottom of the basin. Over it, the different ingredients are placed in layers with pork in the middle and premium ingredients like prawn, abalone, mushroom, sea cucumber on top. Some greens may be added for colour.

The ingredient that holds everything together contributing its dominant savoury sweet flavour is pork belly stewed in nam yue 南乳 or fermented soy bean curd.

Traditional poon choi is served in wooden basins and typically has the following ingredients in layers. Ingredients are cooked separately and vary from place to place, chef to chef. Starting from the bottom of the basin:

🥢 Chunks of boiled radish

🥢 Stewed bean curd sheets / sticks

🥢 Stewed dried pig skin

🥢 Stewed mushroom

🥢 Fried fish balls

🥢 Stewed dried cuttlefish

🥢 Dried eel

🥢 Stewed pork belly

🥢 Poached / steamed chicken

🥢 Stir fried prawns

🥢 Siu mei (roast duck or pork belly)


At the bottom of the heap, the chunks of radish absorb and infuse the sauces and juices that trickle down from the ingredients stacked above it. The humble radish chunks is my favourite part of poon choi 😄


Growing affluence led to more premium ingredients in the basin. Contemporary premium poon choi often have:


🥢 Stewed abalone

🥢 Stewed sea cucumber

🥢 Stewed scallop



But, whatever the version - traditional or gentrified - at the heart of the dish is stewed pork belly. Even with premium ingredients, it is good or bad stewed pork belly that make or break a poon choi. (Image credit Wikipedia)



Written by Tony Boey on 13 Feb 2021

 

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