Poon choi, the main dish on Cantonese dinner tables on the eve of Chinese New Year. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
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.