Poon Choi, or the Big Bowl Feast, is a celebratory dish linked closely to the spring festival or the Chinese New Year.
I have been searching for poon choi for quite a while. The delectable yet time-consuming dish to make is a Cantonese specialty with a multitude of delicious ingredients, each prepared separately, then layered in a wooden, metal or claypot bowl, bathed in a superior stock (as rich as gravy), then cooked slowly once more and served as poon choi.
To cook this dish is a test of one’s culinary skills.
I sent a text message to Maribeth and Simon Wong, owners of Tao Yuan, to ask if their Hong Kong chefs could prepare a big bowl feast for me. My call couldn’t have come at a better time; I was told that they were finalizing their Chinese New Year menu and would include poon choi as one of their New Year offerings.
Maribeth promised to give me a call once they have perfected it, as each chef has his version, depending on which village he is from and/or his previous restaurant training.
If we are to believe Wikipedia, “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 them, and because there were not enough containers, put the resulting dishes in wooden washbasins.”
Evelyn Or, Tao Yuan general manager, said in the olden days it took days to make the dish. It’s not the case today, though it’s still tedious to cook. Some of the ingredients used to complete the dish take more than a day to prepare.
A week later, I was informed by Maribeth that they were ready to let me try what has been of late, for me, a most coveted dish. I rushed to Malate, still my favorite Tao Yuan branch.
The poon choi was delectable and, as always, a culinary experience to behold.
Layer by layer
The right way to eat poon choi is to start at the top. Evelyn said it was not proper to dig all the way into the bottom layers, as I was doing. The dish is to be enjoyed just as it was prepared—layer by layer.
She handed me a piece of paper from the chefs that illustrated what was in our small poon choi bowl, which was good for six, from the bottom up: six pieces radish, large dice and 300-gram cabbage; six-piece fried taro and six-piece fried tao pao (fried beancurd skin); six-piece red soy bean sauce pork knuckle, small black fungus with pork belly; six fish mau, six homemade fish ball; six pieces roasted duck, 12 pieces roasted pork belly lechon macau, six goose web, six whole dry scallop, seamoss , six sea cucumbers, six whole fresh abalone, six black mushrooms, six pieces of Hainanese chicken; six fresh big prawns and broccoli flowers.
It is a veritable meal by itself, enjoyed with a bowl of steamed rice. While the topmost ingredients are prime edibles, the radish and cabbage that line the bowl’s bottom are the tastiest part absorbing the juices of those lined above them. Poon choi fans, like Maribeth, consider them most delicious.
It is also quite noticeable that very little vegetables go into the dish. I am told it is because vegetables were considered not special enough, thus not fit for an emperor.
Being the food lovers that my friends and I are, it was impossible for us just to have poon choi. We enjoyed the other new year offerings on the Tao Hyuan menu, dishes that are believed to bring good fortune.
According to master Aldric Dalumpines, lucky Chinese food are based on two things: euphony and symbolism. Poon choi, being a communal dish, is said to foster unity and promote good family and community relations.
Braised Seamoss sounds like the Chinese words for “wealth and good business,” while pork tongue symbolizes profit. Jin Yin Man Wu, or golden fried stuffed fresh scallop (spectacular, the sauce giving a sweetish hint to the very fresh mollusk) alludes to a house filled with gold and silver.
The fried crab claw stuffed with mashed shrimp (if you like crab claws, this is a must-try, reminiscent of a Mr. Ho specialty but more succulent and juicy) is said to bring money and fortune.
Spring rolls are also said to bring prosperity, on account of their shape and color similar to those of gold bars. The famous Tao Yuan Peanuts are for long life.
The auspicious meal was delicious, and made even more special with good friends around.
For reservations and poon choi orders for dine-in and take-out, call Tao Yuan 0917-8228971.
For information on my cooking class schedules, call 0917-5543700, 0908-2372346, 4008496, 9289296.
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