The Chinese New Year staple of poon choi doesn’t taste good, says Tatler Homes Hong Kong’s editor Andrea Lo. But is it time to abandon this tradition—or does it have room for improvement?

Chinese New Year is always a time filled with joy and good cheer—except for the several hours I am subjected to poon choi

My extended family and I share this dish every Lunar New Year. It’s a relatively new practice for us: at some point in the last decade, it was decided that ordering poon choi would be less cumbersome and more “fun” than one of us having to create an entire Chinese New Year meal from scratch. Thus began my misery. 

Poon choi is prepared by first searing, deep-frying, grilling, poaching or stewing over a dozen ingredients—there is no standardised recipe. After that, each ingredient is layered into a metal or porcelain basin. A sauce is poured in—the recipe for this varies. Some are made with abalone, others from a roasted pork or duck bone broth.

The ingredients that are best served without heaps of sauce, such as shrimp and poached chicken, as well as the most expensive and thus impressive, like abalone, are usually placed at the very top. The middle part is taken up by things like cauliflower and shiitake mushrooms. The likes of pork rind, turnip and taro, good for soaking up the flavours of the sauce, sit at the bottom. 

My first problem with poon choi? It is typically only eaten hours after it is made and requires reheating before serving. This means by the time you have it, your poon choi is inevitably overcooked. And who likes overcooked food? 

But really, none of that matters, because every ingredient in poon choi has a singular flavour and aroma: it tastes only of the sauce the whole thing is drenched in. 

Sauces are supposed to elevate a dish, rather than be the star of the show. Poon choi sauces go against this entirely: they are an MSG overdose, filled with the scent of burnt animal fat, complete with a viscous texture—all of this does nothing except overpower and take away from the unique flavours of each ingredient. 

Whose idea was it to ruin these perfectly good ingredients by piling layers and layers of them together and pouring an unappetising sauce over them, creating one gloopy mess? 

Every ingredient in poon choi has a singular flavour and aroma: it tastes only of the sauce the whole thing is drenched in
Andrea Lo

Still, poon choi remains a quintessential dish for Chinese holidays, with plenty of Hong Kong restaurants offering creations to suit every budget. Just take a look at the social media outcry over Hong Kong YouTuber Snow E’s ill-conceived poon choi reviews in January—it is claimed that it all started out of a desire to showcase mini poon choi that serves one, a new variety that has emerged thanks to the enduring popularity of the original dish.

In a now-deleted video, the influencer reviewed mini poon choi from establishments including the Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong and Sham Shui Po cha chaan teng Ki Lung Tea Restaurant. The former’s now sold-out mini poon choi costs HK$688, while the latter’s version goes for HK$128. Her scathing remarks of Ki Lung’s offering (“rotten shrimp … too few fat choy”) and the fact that she pitted two poon choi at vastly different price points against each other drew people’s ire. Snow E has since apologised, adding: “Very few places offer mini poon choi—lots of places offer poon choi serving six to eight or 10 or more … we needed at least three [mini versions] to do a video review.”

 

I’ve never tried poon choi designed for one, though my first instinct is that as long as its preparation method remains the same as the classic version, there would be little improvement on its flavour. With so many varieties on the market, though, I wondered—and despaired—if I’m the only hater around. There’s even a Hong Kong poon choi concern group on Facebook, populated by lovers of the dish. Surely Hongkongers have higher culinary standards than this? 

Thankfully, a quick Google search proves my opinion is far from an unpopular one. It turns out, there are quite a few people out there who have the same gripe. In December 2020, a thread on the Hong Kong forum LIHKG titled “the most hated poon choi ingredients” gained enough traction that the responses were later reported in local media. 

“The whole thing just tastes bad—separating each ingredient would be much better,” says one commenter.

“When I look at a poon choi it doesn’t make me want to eat it,” writes a fellow hater. “Everything in there is okay [to begin with]. Then they’re forced to sit together, with all their flavours mixed up. Everything ends up tasting the same.” Boom!

“At the end of the day, poon choi is trash,” says another. “I’d be less annoyed if we just had hot pot.” 

When I complained about poon choi on Instagram ahead of Chinese New Year, a friend and I ended up in a debate. The dish brings back good memories of breaking bread with family, she says. 

Poon choi, of course, is a dish traditionally associated with family celebrations and finds its roots in the walled villages of the New Territories. 

In 2016, fashion designer William Tang—a member of the Tang clan, one of the Five Great Clans of the New Territories who are descendants of indigenous inhabitants in Hong Kong—told the Hong Kong Economic Times that while poon choi indeed doesn’t have a set recipe, “most restaurants now simply put ingredients from a buffet together and call it poon choi.” 

That’s not “the spirit of poon choi,” added Tang, who also told the paper that poon choi only became trendy in Hong Kong after he held a banquet for some 300 guests in his ancestral village in 1997 for his mother’s birthday, where he decided to serve the dish instead of a standard Cantonese feast. 

See also: Unveiling the Secret of Poon Choi: Inside May Chow's Takeover of the Tang Clan Ancestral Hall

Poon choi traditionally calls for around eight to 10 ingredients, advised Tang. The likes of shrimp and shiitake mushrooms are not integral to the dish. Radish only goes into poon choi in the winter, when they are sweeter; bamboo shoots are used in the summer instead. Braised pork is the essence of a poon choi prepared the traditional way, he said. It is placed in the middle layer so that its gravy seeps to the lower layers. The most important part of this process is to create a sense of harmony while ensuring the ingredient stands out. Tang also only hosts poon choi dinners after the fourth day of the Lunar New Year to ensure freshness in his hero ingredient—“the guys who sell pork are off on the first three days”. 

So, what gives? Is poon choi inherently doomed as a dish because of its modern preparation methods, or is it just that—as a chef friend tells me—“maybe you just haven’t had a good one?” 

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