Pen Cai (Poon Choi/Pen Chai/Peng Cai/Big Bowl Feast) literally means “basin vegetables” (盆菜) as it was traditionally served to the Emperor in wooden washbasins during the Song Dynasty (adapted to claypot or casserole in modern times).
It is a traditional one-pot Chinese dish of Cantonese origin, and have been a very popular dish in Hong Kong. In recent years, the dish gained immense popularity as a Chinese New Year dish in Singapore. A distinctive feature of Pen Chai is that the ingredients in the claypot are cooked separately, layered and topped with an assortment of seafood delicacies fit for royalty (with luxurious seafood such as abalone and scallops). Eating pen cai signifies abundance and richness in the coming year. I made this pen cai on Sunday for my family’s early Chinese New Year reunion dinner as I will be away during the festive season and I’m happy that it was well-received on the dinner table!Before we go on to my somewhat improvised home recipe for Pen Cai on page two, here’s a step-by-step on how I layer my casserole of treasures. The bottom ingredients are those which can absorb the braising sauce most efficiently. The top layer are the luxury and auspicious items.
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|How to Layer Pen Cai (Step-by-Step)|
|Layer 1: Napa cabbage|
|Layer 2: Tau kee|
|Layer 3: Daikon (white radish)|
|Layer 4: Tau kwa & siu yok|
|Layer 5: Fish maw (3/4 of it)|
|Layer 6: Fat choy, scallops, mushrooms & remaining fish maw. Add gravy until just before the top layer. Cover with lid and simmer for 10 minutes.|
|Layer 7: Top with the remaining ingredients (broccoli, abalone, prawns, carrots, roast duck).|
|Layer 8: Bring remaining sauce to a simmer, and while the sauce is still bubbling, pour over the ingredients until filled to the brim. Ready!!!|
Even though I used some shortcuts, it still took me 3 hours to make this dish from start to finish! Although it is tedious and time-consuming to prepare, the method is relatively easy. My cost price for the ingredients was S$100 but I believe the market rate at restaurants is easily S$300, so there is strong justification for all that hard work. The pot is also very filling and can easily be served as a one-dish meal for 6 persons (we had other Chinese New Year dishes to accompany it though), with possibly leftovers for the next day.
Auspicious symbolisms of Pen Cai ingredients:
In Pen Cai, the ingredients in the claypot are cooked separately, layered and topped with an assortment of luxurious delicacies such as abalone and conpoy. Feel free to adapt this receipe with other ingredients, e.g. sea cucumbers, roast chicken, pig skin, pacific clams.
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 2 hours
(A) Steamed Prawns
Line a plate with ginger slices and arrange prawns on top. Drizzle Chinese wine. Steam for 4 minutes or until prawns are cooked. Set aside.
(B) Broccoli and Carrots
In a pot of boiling water, add broccoli and carrot slices. Blanch for 3 minutes. Take out carrots and set aside. Take out the broccoli and plunge immediately in a bowl of ice water (so that it will retain its bright green hue). Drain and set aside after 5 minutes.
(C) Napa Cabbage, Daikon and Fish Maw
Bring chicken stock to a boil. Add napa cabbage and as soon as they soften, take out and set aside (just about a minute). Add fish maw and daikon; simmer for 15 minutes or until fish maw is soft and daikon is translucent. Set aside.
Add abalone broth to the remaining chicken stock. Top up more chicken stock if you need more sauce. Add wolfberries and simmer for 3 minutes. Season to taste (you can use soy sauces, abalone sauce, rock sugar cubes and/or concentrated chicken stock). Thicken with cornstarch solution, a little at a time and stirring continuously, until the sauce reaches a semi-thick consistency.