Poon choi with a twist: Restaurants in Malaysia pivot Chinese New Year offerings amid COVID-19 curbs
From poon choi (or pen cai) served in bak kut teh gravy to prawn mee soup base, eateries are banking on the one-pot dish to drive sales this festive season.
KUALA LUMPUR: It was a busy morning for Tham Peng Cheong, his wife Sow Kwee Choo and the kitchen staff at Yu Yi Bak Kut Teh as they rushed to prepare several bowls of poon choi for delivery.
Mdm Sow, 67, arranged 26 kinds of meat, seafood and vegetable ingredients that make up their poon choi dish and handed each finished bowl to a worker to wrap them in cling film and aluminum foil.
Meanwhile, Mr Tham, 67, fished out a bundle of insulated bags, and once the bowls were ready, they packed them into the bags. Then there were several vacuum-sealed packets of bak kut teh gravy and a complimentary box of yee sang (or yusheng) to be delivered as well.
“Sometimes we start work much earlier than this, especially if there are a lot of deliveries to make," Mdm Sow told CNA.
READ: Malaysia eases COVID-19 restrictions for Chinese New Year reunion dinner, days after announcing new curbs
Poon choi, or pen cai, is a festive dish popular in Hakka and Cantonese communities. The communal dish has layers of different ingredients and is traditionally served in a large wooden, porcelain or metal basin called poon.
This year, it seems to have become even more popular as a Chinese New Year dish, with many restaurants rolling out poon choi as an easy, one-pot festival feast.
With dining-in limited to groups of two people under Malaysia's second movement control order (MCO), restaurants see takeaway poon choi as a way to drive sales during a quiet year. For meals at home, up to 15 people from the same family are allowed to gather.
The 37-year-old Yu Yi Bak Kut Teh used to have two outlets in Kuala Lumpur. However, Mr Tham said the branch in Jalan Kuching was shut last year, as they wanted to concentrate on keeping their original restaurant in the city centre running.
Previously, the restaurant did not do any Chinese New Year promotion, as its focus was more on tourists.
But with international travel mostly out of the question, the restaurant had to "quickly change our focus in order to survive", said Mdm Sow.
The shop is also promoting its easy-to-make, DIY bak kut teh packs. “Doing the poon choi meant we could promote this as a 'one dish, two different flavours' concept,” said Mr Tham.
"POON CHOI EMBODIES FAMILY REUNION"
Across town in Petaling Jaya at the 8-month-old Tavern Hotpot, proprietor Michael Tan, 28, and his employees were busy fielding calls from interested buyers for his poon choi and hotpot combination.
“Poon choi embodies the idea of the family reunion. Usually during Chinese New Year eve, it would be mum cooking, or if we order from outside, it will usually be poon choi because the ingredients are more premium and the taste will be quite standard, but good,” Mr Tan said.
His rendition of poon choi comes together with a whole hotpot serving, with customers able to choose from platters of beef and pork belly, or a selection of seafood, including large freshwater prawns and an assortment of fish slices.
“The idea is that you order the poon choi for a family meal, then if you can’t finish, you wrap them up in the refrigerator.
“The collected gravy from the earlier steaming combines with the double-boiled abalone soup we’ve created for this promotion, and you can have hotpot for the second meal too,” he explained.
He said that one reason to offer a poon choi and hot pot combination was to try to differentiate the restaurant from other dining outlets' Chinese New Year offerings. "We are a hotpot place and if we were to offer just hotpot again for Chinese New Year, it would seem very ordinary."
Together, he and his staff tested various soup bases, from clam soup to tomato and even Sarawak laksa base, which was a chef specialty.
“But in the end, we decided to go with abalone, because for a special dish like this, you can’t stray too far," said Mr Tan.
RUSHING TO FILL ORDERS
In Penang, the 13-year-old T&T Prawn Mee, so named after its married proprietors’ surnames - Terence Tiow and Catherine Tang, is also selling poon choi but with the state’s trademark prawn mee soup base.
While business in Penang has been slow this year, mainly due to many restaurants marketing poon choi for the festive season, Mr Tiow, 47 said there has been a surge in interest from the Klang Valley. In fact, the latter forms the bulk of orders in the lead up to Chinese New Year, he added.
“Even then, I only dare to ship about 10 sets of poon choi to Kuala Lumpur every day. And today, when you called me, it’s the last day of outstation deliveries. I still have less than 10 pots left, but those have all been reserved for customers in Penang,” said Mr Tiow on Monday (Feb 8).
Poon choi served with a prawn mee soup base has actually been a seasonal staple for the past five years. “The idea to serve poon choi came up after a local food blogger who came to write about our claypot prawn mee, asked us to consider expanding the idea to include poon choi,” Mr Tiow recounted.
It is also going to be a busy time for Mr Tan and his staff, who plan to start work earlier during the last couple of days before Chinese New Year, packing and sending out their poon choi hotpot.
“People want the ingredients as fresh as possible, that’s why you get a lot of last-minute orders and enquiries," Mr Tan said.
For the bak kut teh establishment, the poon choi dish has been sold out on the eve of Chinese New Year. “In fact, we’re trying to tell potential customers to come by and pick up from our shop on Feb 10, said Mdm Sow.