Communal dish a melting pot of flavours
If there is any dish which is unique to Hong Kong, it is surely pun choi. There has been renewed interest in the dish in recent years - though mentions in the media have more often than not been about outbreaks of food poisoning.
Pun choi, or 'basin food', is essentially a rustic, communal dish. There are always turnips at the bottom and then ingredients such as fish balls, braised tofu, dried oysters, pork skin and bamboo shoots are placed on top, one ingredient at a time, finishing with the most prized items such as roast duck at the top.
Each item is prepared separately and then all the components are layered in a bowl, which traditionally is wooden, but can be porcelain or metal. Then the whole thing is reheated, preferably over an open fire to add a slight smokiness. The result is a kind of stew, where meat and particularly pork juices trickle down through the layers to add flavour to some of the more low-key vegetables.
It can be served with additional dishes such as soup, but the pun choi itself always takes centre stage. Today, upmarket versions can be found in smart restaurants, with delicacies such as abalone and fresh oysters, but pun choi is the indigenous food of New Territories' walled villages.
Pun choi is thought to have begun as food eaten by people who, because of social hierarchy, were not allowed to dine inside the main hall of the walled village. So portions of the delicacies being consumed inside were passed out to those in the adjoining courtyard, each item conveniently placed inside the same large bowl.
Legend has it that Emperor Bing of the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) fled to what we now call the New Territories. Villagers there cordially received the emperor and his army with any seasonal produce they could find - locally grown turnips and mushrooms, locally reared ducks, locally caught fish.
This was when Hong Kong had a strong agricultural tradition. But unable to find enough dishes for such a large crowd, they served it in the wooden bowls used by fishermen.
Over time, prepared with local ingredients and cooked by villagers, pun choi became a dish associated with large gatherings - parties such as weddings which might be attended by the entire village.
'Pun choi means nostalgia, a means to connect the former life of the old New Territories,' says fashion designer William Tang, who moved from Central back to the New Territories a few years ago. Every Lunar New Year he throws a huge pun choi banquet in his 600-year-old ancestral hall in Ping Shan.
'It was never a tradition. But if a pun choi feast could highlight the decline of Lunar New Year celebrations and become a new Hong Kong tradition - and that's exactly what we have done - then I'm pleased.' Furthermore, Tang invites people from well beyond the village to this event. 'To put up 500-plus people from around the world for this feast - that's the best a heritage site could have provided.'
An invite to just this event piqued Leung Ping-kwan's interest to such as extent that he wrote poetry about it. Leung, who is chair professor of comparative literature at Lingnan University, explored its symbolism in a 1997 poem entitled Pun Choi on New Year's Eve.
'At that time I was inspired by the mixed form of hotchpotch to express the very mixed feelings we had in response to the handover,' he explains, referring to the time when identifying 'Hong Kong-ness' became important culturally. Pun choi, pre-dating colonialism, began to take on a special meaning.
Leung wrote a second poem about it some years later, this time in sonnet form to echo the 12-14 layers which comprise pun choi, again using it: 'to help us understand Hong Kong culture - with its links to traditional Chinese culture and its gradual development from it.'
Leung takes his analysis even further, exploring mobility and subversive attitudes. 'No way to block exchanges between humble mushrooms and rare squids/Reversed relationships taint each other and affect the purity on top,' run two lines of Basin Feast.
Is pun choi a gourmet experience? If each ingredient is well prepared, the flavours and textures should be varied and complementary. The layers, however, almost inevitably collapse into a heap, and there's a subsequent running together of flavours. But it is a fascinating experience. With pun choi, it is the social aspect (not to mention the traditional accompaniment of rice wine, adds blogger Chan) which is surely as important as the food itself. It is a dish of celebration.