It is only in recent years that 盆菜 Pen Cai has become a ‘staple’ during the Chinese New Year period in Singapore. And it wasn’t even a traditional CNY dish to begin with!
It was said that Pen Cai (Poon Choi) was invented when Mongol troops invaded Song China. To feed the fleeing Emperor who escaped to Guangdong, the locals collected all their best food available. After cooking it, they put it in wooden washing basins as there wasn’t a bowl big enough for the army, coiling the term ‘pen cai’ (vegetables in a basin).
Most would attribute the popularity of the dish to the Hakkas, who contributed root vegetables like yam and tapioca to the dish.
As to what are the actual ingredients that go into it, there are really no hard and fast rules. Almost anything goes! The Cantonese are known to serve the basin with expensive seafood like abalone, scallops, dried oysters, mushrooms, duck, chicken meat and ham. Other versions could include ginseng, dried eel, fish maw, prawns and beancurd.
The main difficulty is not in cooking, but presenting. Every ingredient has to be layered and stacked up properly. Chicken and duck meat are usually placed on the top, implying that birds return to the nests. Though those who know would reach for the bottom where the gravy trickles over the ingredients.
Pen Cai is associated to events that unites the entire community. It is a symbol of cohesion, such that everybody who eats from the common pot are equals, therefore making it a popular dish during the New Year.
And the best thing is, you can eat it over a few days. Sometimes the more you simmer it, the tastier it becomes as the different ingredients blend together absorbing the rich flavours.
Chinese restaurants such as Crystal Jade, Wan Hao, Min Jiang, Lingzhi Vegetarian Restaurant and Zi Ran Seafood Restaurant serve reasonably good Pen Cai with a rough estimate of the price ranging between $200 and $300.
Tell me which is your favourite!