Monday, February 25, 2019

Authentic "Pun Choi" Experience

I cruised along the highway up to the township of Kam Tin near the border after receiving a late phone call from my friend A asking whether I am interested in a “Pun Choi” (盆菜) feast in the rural village in one evening. Just the other day I was telling my other friends that I would love to have an authentic Pun Choi experience some time, so I took this as God answering my prayers with this last-minute invitation.

Traditionally there’s not really such thing as “Hong Kong Cuisine”, as geographically and culturally our culinary history is intertwined with that of Cantonese in southern part of China. But "Pun Choi" (which literally means, "Basin Cuisine") is something considered uniquely local, with history going as far back as centuries ago as meals of celebrations by indigenous villagers in what’s now known as New Territories in Hong Kong. It goes by numerous ingredients arranged in intricate layers in a large wooden or stainless steel basin and served family style in the middle of the table, and that’s usually the only course of the meal.

Nowadays one could have "Pun Choi" in just about anywhere – there’s even local fast food joints that are happy to deliver one to your house in short notice for dinner party or gathering, but the most authentic "Pun Choi" meal happened right in the rural villages like it has been originally, where it’s part of the celebrations, whether that be for one of the traditional Chinese festivals, or for weddings, new-borns, or even birthdays, and often held outdoors, in one’s family backyard, in the open area in the village, or in some cases, inside one’s ancestral hall, the building considered the most sacred in the village community.

The night I went happened to be one of those days as the villagers celebrate the Lantern Festival (元宵節) on the 15th day of Lunar New Year. The day marked the end of spring festival celebration when people got together to eat and celebrate, and when as per tradition, lanterns were hung as a type of religious offerings. After a 40 minute drive, I made it right on time to Shui Mei Village where A and some other friends were already there with a few dozens of villagers and their families and friends, waiting for the festivities to begin.

The night of celebration began at the entrance of the village at the space next to the Tin Hau Temple and the fish pond, where everyone was treated to an intriguing dragon dance show with the sound of firecrackers in the background. All the while a few tables were set up right outside the temple with all kinds of food served in a wooden basin prepared by the families with new-born boys the previous year – as a way of celebration and announcement of the good news. Not far away in the neighboring village, a makeshift stage was set using bamboos, where musical bands and singers were there performing, along with food and gift stalls just like a mini night bazaar.

We were half full already when that was not even the real feast, which our friend already set up for us in the backyard of his house. There’s nothing fancy about “Pun Choi” really – according to legend, this tradition began some centuries ago when the villagers had to prepare the meal hastily when the emperor and his troops reached the town fleeing from the rebels, sorting refuge and need to be fed. So all they could do were piling everything they got into basins and serve. And that’s pretty much what we had - on our table was a gas stove and a large stainless steel basin worked like a casserole with all the ingredients layered inside.

There’s no hard rules on how the food was arranged, but for practical reasons in the bottom are ingredients that could withstand from overcooking – like the chunks of white radishes, squids, taro, shiitake mushrooms, pork skin and pork belly. On top were the more delicate ingredients – poached chicken, shrimps, carp, and fishballs. And ones don’t need to eat in a particular order either – it’s not considered "un-etiquette" if one began to dig through the basin with chopsticks trying to get to the food at the bottom. The stew sauce – typically made of soy sauce with a touch of oyster sauce, red fermented tofu or dried mandarin peel – provided much of the flavor along with the meat, especially the pork belly with the dripping of fat.

I love everything that went into “Pun Choi”, but if I had to name a few favorites, it got to be the fishballs and white radishes. The fishballs were unlike those available at supermarket, with these made fresh and in-house using fish that was carefully deboned, mashed, formed into rounded shape and deep-fried, giving them a nice bouncy texture and a mild umami flavor. The white radish found at the bottom was the ingredient everyone was fighting for, with the chunks taking in all the flavor from the ingredients on top. We were also graced with a few nice bottles brought in by our friends – champagne, old Cognacs, whisky and wines… this may not be a night of haute-cuisine, but it was a memorable one and certainly the highlight of my Lunar New Year celebration this year.

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