Eat To Live

Big bowl of health


Why wait for CNY to dig into poon choy? With tweaks, it can be eaten every day

Goodness in a bowl.

That's poon choy or "big bowl feast", traditionally eaten at Chinese New Year.

But why should such a delicious (and healthy) dish be enjoyed only once a year?

I decided to review the dish to see if it could be cooked every day.

It is not only possible but also beneficial as it is an easy one-dish meal, and full of nutritional goodness, thanks to the dried delicacies that are found in the recipe.

  • Everyday 'Poon choy'


    • 2 tbs vegetable oil

    • 1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped

    • 2 tbs premium oyster sauce

    • 3 tbs rice wine

    • 4 sticks of dried soya-bean sticks (tau kee), soaked to soften

    • ½ cup dried small black fungus, soaked in water to re-hydrate

    • 4-6 medium-sized dried black mushrooms, soaked in half cup of water to soften; retain soaking water

    • 2 medium-sized frozen sea cucumbers

    • ½ head medium-sized Chinese cabbage

    • 5 dried oysters

    • 5 dried medium-sized scallops

    • 4-6 pieces of dried fried fish maw, scalded in water to remove surface oil

    • 1 cup chicken stock

    • 2-3 slices batang fish, central bone removed, cut into four pieces

    • Sea salt and pepper to taste • Fresh coriander, broccoli or spring onions, for garnish


    Rinse and soak the dried foodstuff, excluding the scallops, separately in small basins of water.

    Prepare the other ingredients: Cut the sea cucumber and cabbage into small pieces. Cut the softened tau kee and black fungus into similar-sized pieces.

    Heat the oil in a claypot or shallow Corningware that is large enough to accommodate the ingredients.

    Brown the chopped garlic in the pot. Add the oyster sauce and a splash of rice wine.

    Arrange the first layer of ingredients neatly: tau kee, dried mushrooms, black fungus and sea cucumber.

    Add a layer of cabbage.

    Top with dried scallops and fish maw, leaving space for the fish, which is added later.

    Add water that was used to soak the mushrooms, together with the chicken stock, and simmer on low heat till the ingredients soften. Season to taste.

    Add the fish at the last minute and a few broccoli florets, if you are using them. Cover the pot and leave to steam.

    When ready, serve in the same pot and garnish with fresh coriander and spring onions.

  • SERVES 4-6

Traditionally, there would be abalone, fish maw, sea cucumber, scallops, mushrooms, dried oysters and more.

And not for nothing do the Chinese treasure them.

Sea cucumber, for example, is believed to lower cholesterol, nourish the skin, boost cellular growth and also prevent joint pain.

When fish was plentiful, the Chinese would dry fish to preserve it. With no refrigerators, drying was the only way to preserve seafood, including expensive abalone, scallops and oysters.

I added fresh fish, but at the last minute, to prevent overcooking it.

To make it more suitable as daily fare, I also used more fresh ingredients, such as Chinese cabbage, broccoli and bean curd products, and less of the dried delicacies.

I omitted abalone altogether, as the cost is prohibitive.

What is important in the cooking is timing. You have to layer the ingredients by putting the ones that can withstand a longer cooking time at the bottom of the pot, and the rest on top.

Most of the ingredients can be bought ready-prepared, such as sea cucumber, which is sold ready for the pot, saving you the trouble of soaking it first.

The other dried ingredients can be soaked on the day itself, and the water can be saved to make the stock for the pot.

This is a dish that cooks itself, with the help of the well-loved seasonings of oyster and soya sauces, and rice wine.

It is easy to enjoy poon choy every day. Ms Lock Poh Leng, chief dietitian at Parkway Pantai hospitals in Singapore, said, generally, poon choy is a healthy dish.

The main ingredients, such as dried oysters, scallops, fish maws, sea cucumbers and batang fish (tenggiri) are low in fat, including saturated fat, and moderately low in cholesterol.

Overall, it is a good source of protein. The portion of animal protein for each serving is not excessive, and is balanced with plant-based protein, such as dried soya-bean stick (tau kee), she said.

In addition, batang fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy polyunsaturated fat.

But the dish lacks antioxidants due to its limited variety of vegetables. So, Ms Lock suggests serving it with a vegetable dish, brown rice and fresh fruit.

Dietary antioxidants are associated with reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

And if you like, the oyster sauce can be reduced by at least a third or half to cut down on the salt content, as the dried scallops, oysters, sea cucumber and batang fish already contain sodium, said Ms Lock.

•Sylvia Tan is a freelance writer and cookbook author. Her previous recipes for Eat To Live can be found in two cookbooks, Eat To Live and Taste

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2015, with the headline 'Big bowl of health'. Print Edition | Subscribe