chinese new year eats

February 12, 2008 at 5:05 pm 10 comments

tray of togetherness
The ‘Tray of Togetherness’ (全盒) – one of the many sources of my non-stop snacking

Today is already the 6th day of the Year of the Rat, so there’s obviously been lots and lots of eating going on. I haven’t been able to celebrate CNY with my family for three years because of uni, but thankfully I had the time to come back this time! So many things I’ve forgotten about – all the noise, the jubilous new year songs (which become rather irritating after the first day), red red everywhere, and of course, the sheer amount of food that is consumed. I have something of a bottomless stomach, but lately the eating has caught up to me. I am stuffed to the brim, every single day. Click under the cut for more about the fooooood.

tray of togetherness

Since the holiday comes with the obligatory visits to various family homes (how else will you get your lucky lai see?), of course no home is complete without a Tray of Togetherness (全盒 – ‘chuen hup’). Filled with lots of sweet treats and various kinds of seeds (we had pumpkin, sunflower and watermelon), each item represents some form of prosperity (the gold ingots are self explanatory I think!) or fortune. Everyone always seems to have the obligatory White Rabbit Creamy Candies as well as Sugus sweets (similar to Starbursts, or Opal Fruits for you old-timers!). We used to have dried iced coconut strips, but the sweetness has become a bit too much, so we didn’t get any this year. I think I’m getting old.

turnip cake!

Pre-New Year’s was spent grating loads of radishes for that all-important CNY food, turnip cake (and I have no idea why the ingredient and the dish name are two different things!). Made with grated Chinese radish, rice flour, and with fillings like dried Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms and dried shrimp, it’s eaten either simply steamed or pan-fried. I prefer the latter because of the crisp outer layer and the soft, gooey radish innards. So that’s what I had on the morning of New Year, with copious amounts of Dragon Well tea – ultra fortifying for the long day of bai neen (拜年) trips (visits to family members to bring good new year wishes). Scrumptious. Of course, we hadn’t planned that our rather hospitable Great Grandmother insisted on stuffing us with even more turnip cake when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, as well as water chestnut cake AND sweet neen go (年糕) on our visit! Soon we were off to another family’s home in Lau Fau Shan (流浮山), in the New Territories – ie one of the farthest flung areas from central Hong Kong) for the big new year’s feast!

盆菜 | poon choi

The star of the evening was the 盆菜 (poon choi, literally ‘basin meal’), which is basically a massive vessel filled with layers and layers of every food conceivable. At the bottom there’s usually chunks of radish (one of my favourites) and slices of pig’s skin, which everyone is eager to go for because it’s been soaking up all the glorious juices and flavours from all the ingredients that have been braising in the ‘basin’. It’s actually a tradition that stems from the walled village communities (especially Hakka, I think), where getting together to eat this massive meal was a huge event. It’s actually quite a big deal in Hong Kong too, where some places will set up outdoor seating with massive communal tables, each with its own poon choi in the middle for everyone to dig in. We ate ours in the comfort of my Aunt and Uncle’s shiny new home, which I have to say while good, wouldn’t be as good as roughing it outdoors with hundreds of other people, à la dai pai dong style!

盆菜 | poon choi

Our poon choi had roast duck, chicken, pig’s trotters, beancurd, prawns, dried oysters, shiitake mushrooms, fishballs, pig’s tongue, abalone slices, taro, and probably loads of other things I can’t remember! It’s all braised mainly with salted red beancurd paste (usually used for Buddhist vegetarian meals), some form of miso, and oyster sauce. I think the 12 or so of us hardly made a dent in the massive poon choi before we were stuffed to the brim, because we also had other delicious things:

年年有餘/�

A must-have for Chinese New Year dinner is a fish – because we have this old adage that goes ‘年年有餘’ (neen neen yau yuu), which is a wish for ‘abundance year after year’. However, since the word for abundance sounds the same as the word for fish, it can also be read as 年年有魚 (fish, year after year!). It’s also traditional for the fish to remain a bit uneaten, to ensure that the family has excess in the coming year, but I think it was so delicious we just cleared it all off (stomachs rule over superstition in my family, I swear!).

羅漢齋

And we also had my Uncle Ken’s homemade loh hon jai (羅漢齋), a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dish that’s usually served on the first day of the new year. Black moss seaweed is a big component, because its name, fat choi, sounds like ‘getting rich’. I used to be grossed out by it as a child, because it really does look like wet hair, but it’s delicious and supremely healthy for you! And so so good in the rich oyster sauce.
There were also other dishes, such as a yellow chicken curry (not traditional, obviously, but very good), a special dish of braised shiitake mushrooms which I couldn’t get enough of (nothing better than a nice, juicy shiitake!), and of course, lettuce (its name is ‘sang choi’, which kinda sounds like ‘growing wealth’) though any vegetable would do since the umbrella term for vegetables is ‘choi’ – fortune!

A fantastic time of year to be home, and I can only wonder when is the next time I’ll be able to celebrate CNY in Hong Kong.

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Entry filed under: bai neen, chinese, chinese new year, dinner, hong kong, lau fau shan, neen go, new territories, new year, poon choi, turnip cake, walled villages, year of the rat.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Hau  |  February 13, 2008 at 3:17 am

    Ahhhhh such good looking food! Watermelon seeds are such a pain to eat (although it may be that I haven’t perfected the art of cracking open the shell with my teeth XD)! Pumpkin seeds, WHITE RABBIT CANDIES (i picked off the rice paper for the longest time until someone told me I could eat it, lol)! Mmmm vegetarian dishhhh. Your entry is making me hungry! D:

    Reply
  • 2. Minny  |  February 13, 2008 at 4:27 am

    I miss CNY in HK , I had poon choi last year in HK.
    I really want some of my grandma’s neen go with egg!

    Reply
  • 3. Charmaine  |  February 13, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Hau – CNY is the perfect holiday for people who love to EAT. Omg I should have taken a photo of the seed cracker my relatives had! it’s like a miniature THING, similar to a crab/lobster cracker (?!) -you place the seed in the middle, holding it down with your finger, then squeeze the handles together. It pops the seed right open! I remember my favourite part of white rabbit candy used to be the funny rice paper…. haha :P

    Minny – Mmm, you reminded me that I still haven’t eaten my Aunt’s homemade neen go! Hope you can come back to celebrate CNY in HK soon. Where are you located?

    Reply
  • 4. Jan  |  February 14, 2008 at 1:26 am

    I’ve always really REALLY wanted to have poon choi but have never had the chance as yet! Did you get yours from a restaurant and how does it work? I mean, do they give it to you in a huge basin and is it messy? I saw adverts outside restaurants for it when I was in HK several years ago and was so tempted to buy one but it was just my bf and I and I didn’t think we’d be able to finish it. Also, we were living in a hotel and had no access to a kitchen nor utensils etc…………..

    Reply
  • 5. Charmaine  |  February 15, 2008 at 1:34 am

    Jan – My Aunt and Uncle bought it from a local restaurant in Yuen Long that’s supposedly famous for its poon choi (I don’t have the name though… they gave me a flyer but I stupidly lost it!). They make them quite huge, I think the minimum it serves is 6 people. You place an order and they can either deliver it to you on the day you want it, or you can collect it. It comes all wrapped tightly with tinfoil. I don’t think they provide the gas heater, so you’ll have to find your own way of reheating it – tricky if you were in a hotel! Many places in HK do a version in restaurants though – Maxims fast food were doing a “mini poon choi”!

    Reply
  • 6. Minny  |  February 19, 2008 at 4:07 am

    I live in London, but have family in HK yuen long.
    We must have eaten the same poon choi from the same place in yuen long!

    Reply
  • 7. foodieguide  |  February 19, 2008 at 6:01 am

    Wow, I am impressed. That was a really traditional Chinese New Year dinner, compared with mine. Never even heard of poon choi, but it sounds delicious. However I do remember Sugus sweets and White Rabbit sweets! Yummy!

    Helen Yuet Ling

    Reply
  • 8. Jimmy  |  March 4, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    There’s a new South China Morning Post video all about Poon Choi at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84q1x9bSxyU

    I love the old ancestral hall that it’s prepared in!

    Reply
  • 9. Daria  |  May 6, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    Hi, we are looking to purchase a nice Tray of Togetherness but have had a hard time finding a good wooden one in New York. All the ones we can find here are plastic. Do you happen to know where we would be able to purchase one?

    Thank you,
    Daria

    Reply
    • 10. Charmaine  |  May 8, 2009 at 7:35 pm

      Hi Daria,
      I’m not sure how common wooden ones are – I personally have never come across one, even in Hong Kong! I’ve never been to NY either, but maybe you could try Flushing…? Good luck!

      Reply

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A freelance journalist and full-time gourmand, eating her way mostly through London and Hong Kong.

Current location: London


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Charmaine currently digs: the smell of coffee; adding ponzu to everything; bill granger; still eating natto with every meal; caressing her Nikon FM2n.

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