Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Secrets of Pen Cai

Although Pen Cai (盆菜)is new to Singapore, this dish actually originated some eight hundred years ago, in the Southern Song Dynasty (A.D. 1132 – 1279). There are two stories to how it was born: one which told of the escape of the Emperor to the southern part of China; and the other in which the scholar-general Wen Tianxiang (文天祥) led his soldiers to Dong Guan (东莞), now known as Shenzhen to escape from Mongol invaders. I would like to believe the latter version, as I was made to memorize General Wen’s poems when I was young, and so grew up to love his work. (My favorite poem from him appears below; it was believed this poem was written during the General's exile in Dong Guan.)

The story goes that when the fleeing army of General Wen reached Dong Guan, they were hungry and exhausted. The residents of the city, who were mostly Hakkas, fed the soldiers with whatever they had at home, but as they were poor they soon ran out of crockery and serving pots. So food was collected in huge wooden basins, and served to the general and his men. Since then, the practice has been preserved and passed down to posterity to commemorate the patriotism of General Wen, who was eventually executed on the orders of the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan, in 1283.

As the Hakka were a frugal people, Pen Cai was a “peasant” dish that used ingredients drawn mostly from the farm. It was normally served during Chinese New Year when Hakka families returned to their ancestral houses to pay respects to their elders. Such visits would last a whole day; and as it seemed only appropriate for the visiting family to contribute to the festive feast, they would bring a pot of Pen Cai.

Pen Cai looks simple and straightforward to prepare, but that is deceptive. Authentic Pen Cai embodies the spirit of Hakka cooking, in which complex cooking techniques are brought to bear on “poor man’s” ingredients. The soul of the dish lies in the number “8” -- there are eight main seasonings, eight key cooking techniques, and eight layers of “dishes” stacked on top of each other.

红糟 . 南乳 . 蚝油 . 头抽 . 大茴 . 罗汉果 . 肉桂 . 丁香

The eight seasonings are red wine lees, preserved bean curd, oyster sauce, superior light soy sauce, fennel seeds, dried Lohan, cinnamon, and clove. Unlike the Pen Cai that is available in restaurants these days, with their abalone, sea cucumber and oyster, the original meats and vegetables used in the dish were modest produce of the farm such as pork, fried pig’s skin, chicken, prawn, radish, yam, bean curd sticks, and dried mushrooms.

煨 . 烩 . 炒 . 炸 . 焖 . 煎 . 煮 . 

The eight techniques found in Pen Cai are simmering, thickening, quick-frying, deep-frying, braising, pan-frying, boiling, and pot-stewing.  These techniques are not only found in Hakka cooking, but are central to Chinese cuisine in general.

煨萝卜 . 烩冬茹腐皮 . 炒猪皮竽头 . 炸鱼饼 . 焖柴鱼烧腩 . 煎虾碌 . 白切鸡 . 卤猪蹄

The eight “dishes” that make up Pen Cai would be cooked using these techniques, singly or in combination. They would then be stacked in this order beginning from the bottom: simmered radish; dried mushroom and bean curd skin; quick-fried pig’s skin and yam; deep-fried fish paste; braised roast pork belly and dried cod; pan-fried prawns; boiled chicken; and caramelized pork trotter pot stew.

Pen Cai etiquette prescribes eating your way down – that is, starting from the top, and finishing it before starting on the next lower layer. In fact, the bottom layers are generally considered the most tasty and “prized”, as they consist of absorbent radishes, mushrooms, and bean curd skins that have been “soaked” for a long period of time in the juices and seasonings of the upper layers!

Today, the Hakka who live in the New Territories in Hong Kong still practice and celebrate Chinese New Year with a massive Pen Cai feast at their village. Not only have they preserved the dish and its traditions, they have also turned it into a cultural event that has received much publicity in the press and television. In fact, these annual Peng Cai gatherings attract hordes of tourists and outsiders eager to witness, and hopefully taste, this great communal dish. Tickets are even sold to these events.

In Singapore, restaurants usually offer the “deluxe” version of Pen Cai as a Chinese New Year celebratory dish. Personally, I much prefer the original version in which the old saying of “the family that eats together, stays together” seems to shine through more powerfully without the frills and fanfare.

You can enjoy the dish at restaurants such as Old Hong Kong Legend, Quan Xin Yuan, Plum Village Restaurant, and Zai Shun Curry Fish Head, which offer their own versions of Pen Cai, without burning a hole in your pocket.

252 North Bridge Road
#02-18/19 Raffles City Shopping Centre
Telephone: 65- 6336 3038

16 Jalan Leban
Telephone: 65-6458 9005

252 Jalan Besar
Telephone: 65-6294 6254

253 Jurong East Street 24
#01-205 First Cooked Food Point
Telephone: 65-6560 8594

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