A common sight on dinner tables in southern China around Chinese New Year, pen cai is an indulgent dish that displays far more symbolism than its humble appearance suggests.
The number eight, deemed to be auspicious to the Chinese, is pivotal to the dish: eight layers of ingredients cooked with eight different cooking techniques and garnished with eight seasonings are carefully stacked in a deep bowl.
True to the spirit of the Hakka people, among whom the dish originated, pen cai prizes the elevation of “poor man’s food” through complex cooking techniques. It originally comprised ingredients such as boiled radish, stewed mushroom, beancurd skin, pig’s skin, yam, deep-fried fish paste, braised roast pork belly, dried cod, sauteed prawns, chicken and caramelised pig’s trotter, stacked in this order. The eight seasonings consist of oyster sauce, cinnamon, cloves, fennel powder, soya bean paste, superior light sauce, preserved bean curd, and dried luohan fruit.
According to pen cai etiquette, the dish is consumed by layer from the top down. Each layer must be eaten before the diner digs down to the next one. The bottom layers of radishes, mushrooms and beancurd skin, are typically the most prized as they get to soak up the flavours of the upper levels.
Upscale restaurants in southern China and Hong Kong have started doling out ever more luxurious versions of the classic, with premium ingredients such as abalone, dried scallops, sea cucumber, fish maw and rare mushrooms.
When did the dish originate?
The origins of pen cai date back to the late Song Dynasty, though there are two differing stories about its creation.
In the first version, the dish emerged as a spontaneous amalgam of the best food that Hakka villagers in what are now Hong Kong’s New Territories could offer when the last Song emperor sought refuge among them after fleeing the invading Mongols.
The other version of the legend tells of impoverished villagers pooling their best ingredients to feed the scholar-general Wen Tianxiang as he retreated with his army to Dongguan, now a city near Shenzhen. As large pots were scarce among the villagers, they collected and cooked the food in huge wooden basins instead – hence the dish’s name, which literally means ‘basin vegetables’.
Where to find it?
Head to Nan Ji Restaurant (1177-1 Nanxin Rd in Shenzhen; +86 755 8628 4112), a stalwart of Cantonese cooking. The dish needs to be ordered a day in advance as the ingredients for each layer are cooked separately and then simmered together for half an hour before serving.
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