Adventures in Cantonese Cuisine Part 26 – Poon Choi (ps. Happy New Year!)

It’s Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Dog! May you live long and be prosperous!

Last night, I had a poon choi – literally a ‘feast in a big bowl’. It’s kind of like a hot-pot, of which I have espoused the virtues in earlier posts, but with all the ingredients pre-added. You heat it up for a bit, then transfer it to a table-top gas hob, and tuck in.

It’s a type of cuisine unique to Hong Kong, and is eaten mainly at festivals: marriages, birthdays, New Year… It’s origins are lost in the mists – one theory is that it was invented by 12th century villagers who wanted to welcome a Chinese Emperor at short notice (he was fleeing the Mongol hordes and hadn’t called in advance) and so shoved all their best foodstuffs in a washbowl.

Modern poon choi is pretty far removed from this – no washbowl, thankfully – but the premise remains the same. Now, though, and especially at New Year, the ingredients are specially chosen for their symbolism, and for the way their Chinese names sound like good things. Kind of like eating lots of McVities Rich Tea biscuits because it might make you rich.

The poon choi in the picture has, let me see… abalone (for fortune), scallops (for new opportunities and luck)… don’t ask me what the actual Chinese words are… dried oysters (for luck in business), a kind of vegetable that looks like black hair (for prosperity), lotus (for having money all year round). The chicken and duck, or any other winged creatures, symbolise family returning to the nest. There are also scallops, mushrooms, fish stomach, sea cucumber, prawns, pork… I’m not sure of the symbolism of all these items – if I were a betting man I’d say they’d have something to do with prosperity and fortune. Chinese people are generally quite concerned with prosperity and fortune.

Under all the big-ticket items lie vegetables, taro and turnips that, by the end are the tastiest part of the poon choi, having absorbed all the sauce from several hours of slow-boil. Legend has it that the vegetables in a poon choi are limited or hidden at the bottom because the original villagers thought they weren’t fit for the emperor that they had had foisted on them. For an especially auspicious feast, people should apparently make sure that the bowl contains eight items (or a multiple of eight) because 8 is very lucky in Chinese culture. DON’T, whatever you do, have 44 items in your poon choi…

Chinese New Year food symbolism goes way beyond poon choi. Over the next week or so you could eat lettuce (for prosperity, again), noodles (for a long life – kinda obvious that one), sticky rice (to ensure a better year than the last one), and dumplings because… I’m not sure why dumplings are in there. People just love their dumplings.

Whatever you happen to eat over CNY, may the Year of the Dog bring you prosperity, luck, new opportunities, fortune, health and happiness. Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s