UNVEILING THE SECRET OF POON CHOI

Inside May Chow’s Takeover of the Tang Clan Ancestral Hall

Chef May Chow’s updated poon choi topped with Carabinero prawns and raw Hokkaido scallop

There seems to be no stopping for chef May Chow since she was awarded Best Female Chef of 2017 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, after receiving our inaugural Local Champion award for the 2017 edition of Hong Kong Tatler Best Restaurants. At the start of the Year of the Rooster, Chow’s name adorned a traditional Cantonese fa paai, a two-storey high bamboo-frame “flower plaque” made by master Wing-kei Choi, right outside the Tang clan’s ancestral hall in Yuen Long.

Used at wedding celebrations, a shop opening or a festival in rural Hong Kong, this one was commissioned by Hennessy to commemorate the William Tang Tat-chi x May Chow Hennessy Appreciation Dinner held at the imposing 700-year-old Tang Ancestral Hall. After China and Taiwan, this was Hennessy’s third stop in a cognac pairing initiative that seeks to engage with Chinese culinary culture in more profoundly innovative ways.

For dinner, Chow dished out a victorious reinterpretation of the rustic poon choi (Cantonese for “basin dish”), an iconic Hong Kong culinary creation and the one-pot wonder that local villagers sit down together for during Chinese New Year. Half of the eight side dishes were prepared by the villagers in accordance with their traditional recipes. The other half were updated and reinvented by Chow, creative tweaked into a delicious, coherent fusion.

The 700-year-old Tang Ancestral Hall in Yuen Long, Hong Kong

Inside the heritage building decked out in red lanterns and giant paper fans, fashion designer Tang and the young chef stood on a stage in front of the scintillatingly austere altar to recount the history of poon choi, considered a native dish of Hong Kong.

“I want to clarify that I’m not doing this for commercial purposes or financial gain whatsoever,” Tang explained on stage. “I have better ways to make money. When I heard what May wanted to do, I knew this was a precious opportunity for an interesting cultural crossover.”

Cyrus Chow, William Tang and Chef May Chow; photo courtesy of Moët Hennessy Diageo

In fact, Tang had to convince his clan about this endeavour. The Ping Shan Tang clan consists of 80 villages in the area, and Tang had to check with 80 village chiefs, making sure they gave their blessings to the event held at their illustrious ancestral hall.

The Tang clan in Ping Shan is one of the richer original clans in Hong Kong, having settled in Yuen Long since the Southern Song dynasty, 800 years ago. Subsequently, they’ve developed the tradition of serving gau daai gwai, “nine great bowls (for ritual offering)” on feast days. Eight side dishes are served together with the poon choi as the centrepiece.

Poon choi is actually not considered the main pièce de resistance in our village.” Tang clarifies. “Each of the other eight dishes hold special importance as well.”

Most poon choi nowadays serve an indiscriminate mix of shrimp, squid, abalone, chicken and vegetables, packed tight and piled high in one graceless mound on top of braised pork, pig skin, dried tofu skin and Chinese winter radish.

As the Tang clan serves eight other dishes together with the self-contained stew, their poon choi is kept minimal with just the original basis of pork, chewy pig skin, bundles of dried tofu skin and cubes of radish.

“The villagers wouldn’t let me touch this bottom layer,” Chow reveals. “I’m allowed to dress it up and top it with whatever I want though, as the Tangs don’t consider the now conventional abalone and white-poached chicken on most poon choi to be ‘traditional’ either.”

She used beetroot juice to colour sous-vide octopus and Iberico pork belly flavoured with nam yue (fermented bean curd) an auspicious crimson. The top was also studded with fat slabs of raw Hokkaido scallops and gargantuan Spanish Carabinero prawns with rich, coral-filled heads in flagrant scarlet.

Chow used beetroot juice to colour sous-vide octopus and Iberico pork belly flavoured with nam yue (fermented bean curd) an auspicious crimson

“It’s literally one of those bucket list things I’d wanted to do.” Chow recounted. “There are so many traditions slowly fading away in Hong Kong, and there’s only a small amount of people upholding those traditions. It’s my dream to work together with so many masters in this event.

The village chefs’ four traditional dishes all featured hearty, strongly seasoned village flavours. Braised duck seasoned with star anise and pickled plum; handmade pork meatballs with revelatory bounce. The yellow wine chicken was infused with the village’s own glutinous rice wine and wine lees, the aromatic sauce speckled with chewy grains of fermented sticky rice.

The villagers were most proud of their Ping Shan style chicken fried rice, spiced with lots of ginger and ample amounts of ambrosial chicken fat. This special dish kicks Singaporean Hainan chicken rice to the curb. Our table finished the bowl in seconds.

Since most of the traditional dishes were stews or braises, Chow decided to run the gamut of texture and temperature with her dishes, as well as add more acidity to offset the rich sauces of the traditional Tang clan ones.

“I did a lot of research before reinterpreting William’s traditional family recipes.” Chow says. “But you don’t want it too fine dining and lose the rustic flavour of it all. Otherwise there’s no point.”

“There are so many traditions slowly fading away in Hong Kong, and there’s only a small amount of people upholding those traditions. It’s my dream to work together with so many masters in this event.” — Chef May Chow

She dressed Ping Shan’s traditional palate cleanser of home-pickled pineapple and baby ginger with Hennessy, fresh coriander and black sesame. The ubiquitous Chinese New Year ingredient, fat choy or hair vegetable — symbolising prosperity for the Cantonese — was unconventionally deep-fried to a wiry crunch and placed on top of soy-pickled black mushrooms and wood ear fungus with a nuanced umami. Braised pork knuckle was sliced thinly and made into a refreshing salad dressed with pickled plum, earthy black Chinkiang vinegar and Hennessy VSOP Privelège provided diners with a different textural interlude.

Braised pork knuckle salad; photo courtesy of Moët Hennessy Diageo

Award-winning mixologist, Antonio Lai of Quinary, The Envoy and Vea fame also presented a quad of innovative cocktails inspired by Chinese New Year staples to welcome guests, including “Fortune in House”, “Red Packet”, “Sweet Date” and “Family Reunion.

A crowd favourite was the traditional warming winter tisane of 桂圓紅棗 dried longan and jujubes (Chinese red dates), served in a whisky glass as a chilled cocktail, as the subtle, sweet nuttiness of the dried fruits went sublimely well with the caramel and vanilla notes of Cognac.

An always impressive Cantonese lion dance by Keung’s Dragon & Lion Dance Team, four-time winner of “The World Lion Dance Cup” kicked off the dinner, followed by a stirring set of songs performed by Cantopop darling, Joyce Cheng, who also served up her late mother’s comedic genius.

The perfect ending would have been to while away the remainder of the night with a cognac in hand. However, all good things came to a relatively early end: as it was a rural village in Yuen Long, most of all the 200 VIP guests were whisked away via shuttle bus by 10pm.

Tags: May Chow, Hennessy, William Tang Tat-chi, local Hong Kong, poon choi


Originally published at hk.dining.asiatatler.com.

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