Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Happy Year of the Rabbit | Pun Choi

Last Thursday was the beginning of the year of the rabbit. As a child, Chinese new years was always an exhilarating time of the year. The air was electric, raucous with the sounds of fire crackers and the clanking of mah jong tiles. The loud noises terrified me but were thrilling too in the way a roller coaster, or a scary movie can be - the fear gave everything an exciting edge. Life during that time felt like an adventure. Although still a favorite time of year, the tenor of the holiday has changed for me. I rarely attend the chinatown parades and festivities, so the excitement, the noise, is gone. Now the holiday is all about the gathering: sharing a feast of good food with loved ones. Last Wednesday, we went to my parent’s home to partake in a pun choi with close friends and family.

Pun Choi, which roughly translates to “basin food,” is a one pot meal. The ingredients, pre-cooked separately, each with its own preparation, are then arranged into one large pot. When you are ready to eat, you pour in a rich pork broth, and heat it on a hot plate in the middle of the table until the broth is simmering and the ingredients are heated through. Unlike most one pot meals like stews or casseroles, here, the components are partitioned and layered within the bowl, the meal feels more like a multicourse banquet which happens to be served in a single vessel. Although pun choi, a Hong Kong specialty, is reputed to have been invented during the Song Dynasty, it only recently regained popularity. This likely explains why, despite my mother’s roots in Hong Kong, I only first learned of this dish last spring when ken and I travelled there to visit family. According to this article, the resurgence of this dish was fueled by a desire of the people to reaffirm their Hong Kong identities as separate and distinct from either Britain or China. While I don’t dispute that, I believe another major factor was likely mere practicality. Although apartments in Hong Kong make those here in NYC seem palatial, large family gatherings are still de rigueur. Pun choi provides a celebratory way to feed large gatherings in small spaces. I learned this first hand, when we celebrated my grandmother’s birthday while visiting Hong Kong. Over 15 of us, four generations of Lees, gathered together in her small apartment, where we all comfortably enjoyed pun choi.
The ingredients in a pun choi can be quite varied (as evidenced by the two photos above). Last weeks’ was chock full of fortuitous foods that are traditional to eat on Chinese new years, many of which are meant to ensure prosperity in the coming year. Some like fat choy (a fungus which resembles black hair), lettuce and dried oysters are lucky because their names sound like other Chinese words which happen to have lucky meanings. Others, like abalone, fish maw, sea cucumber and dried scallops indicate prosperity because they are considered rare delicacies. The idea being, I suppose, that if you eat like a rich person on new years eve, then you will actually be a rich person for the remainder of the year. In addition to the traditional new years food, the pun choi also included stuffed fish, roast chicken, pig & duck feet, tofu skins, shrimp, all eaten over long uncut noodles, which symbolize long life. This is the perfect dish for a holiday that epitomizes community and comfort. The simmered meats and vegetables, eaten from a communal vessel, are hearty and belly-warming. Despite the extravagant ingredient list, the best and most coveted part of the pun choi, is the turnip. Turnip is a common ingredient in all pun choi, and is always nestled near the bottom of the pot where it turns sweet and soft from the long slow cooking. The turnip, which absorbs the different flavors of all the other ingredients, is a delicacy to rival even the priciest components of the dish. Lesson learned - I will approach the new year hopeful and expectant of great things, but will celebrate the small things that make the journey worthwhile... and tastier!

Gong Hay Fat Choy! Have a happy, healthy and prosperous new year!

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful depiction in pictures and a detailed explanation of a traditional Hong Kong new years feast.