Hed Chef shares her recipe for festive pen cai
Treasure pot of prosperity
Pen cai (Mandarin for basin feast) is said to be the result of some very creative villagers who didn't have enough crockery to serve food to the last emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty.
Emperor Bing had arrived in their walled village in Hong Kong after fleeing the invading Mongols.
So the peasants improvised by using basins to contain the food and served them to the emperor and his entourage.
Called poon choi in Cantonese, pen cai enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in Hong Kong following the 1997 handover. The dish was considered a celebration of Hong Kong's cultural heritage.
Don't let its name mislead you into thinking it's just a large basin of festive ingredients all thrown and cooked in one pot. There is an art to making the dish - just like eating it.
The ingredients are arranged in layers, allowing you to appreciate the different texture and flavours.
Ingredients such as radish and napa cabbage form the base, the ingredients lending sweetness to the gravy and to soak up the juices from the ingredients on top. You can also use lotus root and yam.
On a side note, pen cai usually doesn't contain much vegetables for fear of making the dinner host appear cheap.
Some people get put off by the idea of making pen cai because it seems difficult. I'd say it is tedious but not difficult.
Traditionally, the making of pen cai requires a team effort because of the many steps needed and the elaborate nature of the dish.
Did I mention that making your own pen cai gives you legitimate reason to buy that very nice, big claypot you have been eyeing?
I bought three types of roasted meat - duck, pork and chicken - to add to the dish but as you can see from the photo above, there wasn't enough space to add these as I used ang kar hei (red-legged wild sea prawns) which were so fat, they made my claypot look very small.
I added the roasted meats to the pen cai leftovers the next day. The flavours got even better when left to steep overnight.
You can cook the prawns separately and place on top of the dish before serving. But I prefer to place them on the top layer, cover and cook them in the pen cai itself so as not to waste their sweetness.
I don't think it is necessary to use high-grade sea cucumber or abalone in the dish because there are enough luxury ingredients to keep everyone happy.
So unless you are entertaining an abalone connoisseur, you can save by using affordable farmed abalone. Add the abalone last so you do not run the risk of overcooking it.
To bring out the flavour of the abalone, you can simply blanch it by placing it in a colander and pouring hot water over it.
I bought the sea cucumber from the wet market. To get rid of any fishy odour, blanch the sea cucumber in boiling water for about 10 minutes.
Some purists would say that you must use chicken stock cooked from a mother hen but I didn't bother. With the natural sweetness of the braised mushroom gravy, the pork trotter cooking liquid and the soaking liquid of the canned abalone, you can do with one less chore.
I used a slow cooker to braise the mushrooms because I didn't want to have to watch over it.
For the pen cai itself, if you are using a claypot or a stove top-safe casserole, don't rush and turn up the heat or you run the risk of cracking the pot or burning the ingredients.
Oh, one more tip: Add a little cognac to the gravy for that extra kick.
INGREDIENTS (Serves 8 to 10)
- 500g napa cabbage, cut into 6cm-wide pieces
- 1 radish, peeled and cut into large pieces
- 8 sea prawns (ang kar hei)
- 1 can of abalone (9 to 12 pieces), reserve soaking liquid
- 9 frozen scallops, thawed
- 10 dried scallops
- 60g dried maw
- 3 medium-sized sea cucumbers, cut into thirds
- 30g dried fatt choy
- 8 pieces of dou bao (beancurd parcels or fresh soy chip), deep-fried
- 1 garlic clove, chopped
- 1 tbsp cornflour mixed with 1 tbsp water
- 1 tbsp cooking oil
Braised mushrooms (Part A)
- 15 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 8 dried oysters
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 60g ginger, smashed and squeezed for juice (2 tbsp ginger juice for oysters)
- 1½ tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tsp light soya sauce
- ½ tsp dark soya sauce
- 2 tbsp Chinese wine
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- Dash of pepper
- 1.2 litres of water
- Liquid from canned abalone
- 2 tbsp cooking oil
- 2 tbsp cornflour mixed with 2 tbsp water
Pork trotter (Part B)
- 1 pork trotter, cut into large pieces
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 3 stalks of spring onion
- 1.5 litres of water
- 2 tbsp light soya sauce
- 1 tsp dark soya sauce
- 1 flat tsp salt
- Dash of pepper
- 5 garlic cloves (with skin on)
- 40g ginger, peeled and smashed
1. Rinse the dried oysters and soak in water for 30 minutes. Drain the water.
2. Soak the dried oysters in ginger juice for 15 minutes. Discard the ginger juice.
3. Rinse the dried scallops. Place in a bowl and fill with just enough water to cover the scallops. Soak for 45 minutes. Reserve the soaking liquid
4. Rinse the dried shiitake mushrooms and soak in hot water until softened. Rinse again.
5. In a separate pot, heat 2 tablespoons of oil. Fry the 2 cloves of chopped garlic until fragrant, add the 15 mushrooms. Pour in the soaking liquid of the abalone and 1.2 litres of water.
6. Add the 2 tbsp oyster sauce, 1 tsp light soya sauce and ½ tsp dark soya sauce.
7. Simmer for an hour over the stove. Add water if necessary.
8. Add the dried oysters and continue to simmer for 20 minutes.
9. Add the Chinese wine, sesame oil, pepper and slowly stir in the cornflour mixture. Cover and turn off the fire.
I recommend using a slow cooker so the mushrooms continue to braise - they taste better the longer you braise them.
1. Bring a pot of water to a boil and boil the pork trotter pieces until there is no visible blood.
2. Discard the water and rinse the pork.
3. In a clean, sturdy pot, heat 1 tablespoon of sugar over very low heat. Once it caramelises, add the pork trotter.
4. Add in the five whole garlic cloves and ginger.
5. Pour in the 1.5 litres of water and add the spring onion stalks.
6. Bring to a boil and add in the light soya auce, dark soya sauce, pepper and salt.
7. Add the radish.
8. Boil over medium-low heat for 20 minutes. Remove the radish and set aside.
9. Continue simmering the pork trotters for another 40 minutes until the meat is firm and almost tender. Turn off the heat.
10. Remove the pork trotter pieces and set aside. Strain the gravy into a saucepan.
1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Boil the sea cucumber for 10 minutes. Remove from water, rinse and set aside. Slice into bite-sized pieces. Discard the water.
2. Bring another pot of water to a boil. Place the fish maw in it and boil for five minutes. (A)
3. Remove from water and rinse. Cut into pieces. Set aside.
4. Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add in the fatt choy and turn off the heat. Soak for 15 minutes. Rinse the fatt choy thoroughly and remove any grit. Strain and drain off any excess water. Set aside.
5. In the claypot, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-low heat. Fry the chopped garlic (one clove) and add in the cabbage.
6. Fry briefly and add the gravy from the pork trotters. Simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in the cornflour and water mixture. Turn the heat to low.
7. Add the radish in a layer on top of the napa cabbage. (B)
8. Place the pork trotter pieces in a layer. (C)
9. Form another layer with the beancurd parcels. Add the fatt choy.
10. For the top layer, arrange the braised mushroom, dried oysters, the dried scallops, the prawns, sea cucumber and fish maw. Pour in the braised mushroom gravy. Cover and allow the pot to simmer until the prawns are half-cooked. Add the fresh scallops and continue cooking until the prawns are almost cooked. (D)
11. Place the abalone into the pot. Cover and simmer for a few minutes more until the prawns are cooked. Serve hot.