Banquet in a basin

I HAD my first poon choi at a wedding banquet last year. Working through the layers of food served in a huge bowl and trying to identify the different ingredients in each layer made the meal most memorable. When I found out that poon choi is a favourite dish for Lunar New Year feasts, I embarked on a search of restaurants in Johor Baru that served this delectable dish.

Origin Of The Basin

Poon choi in Cantonese dialect is “basin vegetable” and is said to have its origins in the late Song Dynasty (960–1279). When the Mongolians invaded China, the Imperial family fled south to Guangdong and Hong Kong.

The locals did their best to welcome the royal family and to feed them, they collected the best ingredients to cook a meal. But they did not have enough crockery, so they decided to serve all the food in big wooden basins that were traditionally used to wash clothes.

And that was the start of the big basin banquet or poon choi. Soon, poon choi came to be associated with community events like religious festivals and weddings and are usually held in a courtyard or an open space in the village. Today, poon choi is served in metal basins large enough to feed 10 to 12 persons and eating from a common bowl is a symbol of village cohesion that removed class and status differences as everyone was considered equal.

Tasty Treasures

Poon Choi served in New Lucky Restaurant
Poon choi can consist of between nine and 18 ingredients that are separately cooked by stir-frying, deep-frying, boiling, braising or stewing. Ingredients are assembled, layer by layer, in the basin and stewed further to bring out the flavours.

The right way to eat poon choi is to go layer by layer and good manners demand that you help yourself to what is within easy reach instead of stirring or digging to the bottom of the basin. The aim is to savour each ingredient as you would individual courses, allowing all the juices to drip down and add flavour to ingredients at the bottom.

Right at the top you’d find chicken feet or duck/goose webs, implying that birds return to their nests. Expensive ingredients include sharks’ fins, dried scallop, roast pork, fish maw, abalone, dried oysters, mushrooms and fresh prawns. For an exotic touch, you may get ginseng, black moss, fried fish fillet, pig skin, pork knuckle, pork tendon or ox tongue. At the bottom are beancurd rolls, radish and Chinese cabbage to soak up the juices.

Sumptuous Survey

Poon Choi served at Kong Inn Seafood Restaurant
For the Lunar New Year season, poon choi goes by auspicious names like Reunion Treasure Pot, Prosperity Poon Choi and Pot of Good Fortune. I narrowed my poon choi search to a few leading Chinese restaurants and hit the proverbial jackpot at my first stop.

Though wooden wash basins are a piece of the past, Kong Inn Seafood Restaurant Hakka Poon Choi serves poon choi in large metal bowls fitted into wooden basins. How charming! Every restaurant has its own formula for the layering of ingredients — artistically arranged to display a contrasting palette of colours, textures and cooking styles.

Poon Choi served at Pekin Restaurant
But instead of vegetables at the bottom, Pekin Restaurant has placed green broccoli with braised goose webs, dried scallops and dried oysters while plump prawns were propped up in their glistening bright red shells.

Masterchef N.K. Lau at Eastern Dragon Restaurant braised succulent scallops in oyster sauce. Prawn were fresh and firm while slices of steamed yam simply melted in my mouth.

I tasted the crunchy textures of bamboo pith and fish maw and gave the goose webs a miss but I enjoyed the beancurd skin and Chinese cabbage, simmered to softness and full of flavour.

Even now, as I recall the burst of unforgettable flavours, I feel fortified with enough protein and nutrients to see me through the Year of the Ox!

Fast Facts

A standard poon choi can serve up to 10 people and orders should be made at least a day in advance. Restaurants also offer smaller servings at per person prices and takeaways can be arranged, with a refundable deposit for the return of the pot.

More than just an ingredient

THE Lunar New Year, one of the most significant and longest celebrations in the Chinese calendar, is a time for reunions and celebrations. For feasts, certain items are a must-have for their auspicious sounding (given here in Cantonese) names and here’s why:

Abalone: Pau yue sounds like assurance of surplus.

Arrowhead: Called qi ku or qi ku teng (meaning male offspring), this little bulb root with a tiny shoot looks a lot like the male genital. For the Chinese, sons are very important for carrying on the family name.

Bamboo shoots: Chuk soon spells out a wish — “hope that everything turns out well”.

Beancurd: Dried or fried, it represents wealth and happiness.

Sea Moss: Despite its name, fatt choi does not come from the sea. Instead, it is a fungus that grows in the desert. Its name simply means prosperity.

Dried oysters: Ho si sounds like auspicious things or events.

Fish Maw: Yue piu is actually the swim or air bladder that helps fish control buoyancy. It’s a pricey Chinese delicacy that symbolises good luck.

Leeks: Soon sounds like the Chinese word for “without hindrances.”

Lettuce: Sang choi symbolises prosperity because its name sounds like “bringing about wealth and riches”.

Lotus seeds: Lin qi represents fertility and sounds like the Chinese phrase that means “a son every year”.

Lotus roots: Lin ngau signifies family unity and harmony and sounds like lin yau meaning “every year you have plenty”.

Mushrooms: Called mow gu, mushrooms represent family reunion, sharing and happiness.

Noodles: In long strands, noodles symbolises longevity.

Scallop: Tai qi sounds like the Chinese word for prince or son.

Sea cucumber: Hoi sum sounds like the phrase for happiness.

• Eastern Dragon Restaurant 47-51 Jalan Serigala, Century Gardens, 80250 Johor Baru. Tel: 07-331 9600. Tel/Fax: 07-332 3423 • Kong Inn Seafood Restaurant 157 & 157-A Jalan Sutera, Taman Sentosa, 80150 Johor Baru. Tel: 07-334 3232, 334 3737. Fax: 07-333 1566 • New Lucky Seafood Restaurant 1 Jalan Keris, Taman Sri Tebrau, 80050 Johor Baru. Tel: 07-333 7519, 332 5301. Fax: 07-333 0042 • Restoran Pekin 38 Jalan Baldu Lima, Taman Sentosa, 80150 Johor Baru. Tel: 07-333 2928 & 332 0902 • Restoran Daiman Pekin 18 Jalan Pesona, Taman Johor Jaya, 81100 Johor Baru. Tel: 07-354 4770 & 354 4775. Fax: 07-353 1063 • Pekin Restoran 2 & 4 Jalan Molek 1/9, Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Baru. Tel: 07-356 0739 & 356 0740. Fax: 07-56 0737 • Restoran Pekin Sutera 1 Jalan Sutera Tanjung 8/4, Taman Sutera Utama, 81300 Skudai. Tel: 07-557 3899 & 558 1818. Fax: 07-557 6929

This article was first published in The New Straits Time, Travel Times on 19 January 2009

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