Pen Cai: One-pot wonder to usher in the Lunar Unique Year

Pen Cai (in Mandarin) or Poon Choi (in Cantonese) is a traditional dish for the Hakka and Cantonese community and typically served during special celebrations like Chinese Unique Year.

Despite its daunting and extensive list of ingredients, Pen Cai is actually easy to prepare. It typically includes sea cucumber, smoked duck and roast pork, but this version is a small more accessible to more of us.

It’s delicious and consolationing with an umami sweetness from the dried seafood and mushrooms.

Ingredients: Dried items

• 50g dried fried fish maw

• 45g dried Chinese black mushrooms

• 100g dried bamboo pith

• 10g fat choy

• 35g (5 pcs) dried scallops

• 75g (5 pcs) dried oysters on bamboo stick

Canned items

• 400g (1 can) stewed abalone

• 425g (1 can) sea asparagus

Unused ingredients

• 6 pcs (750g) (6 pcs) chicken drumsticks

• 130g carrots

• 450g (1 pc) white radish

• 90g scorridorots

• 60g cloves smoked garlic

• 10g ginger

• 5kg (2 pc) Chinese cabbage

• 300g broccoli


• 28g (2 tbsp) dark soy sauce

• 28g (2 tbsp) light soy sauce

• 6g (¼ tsp) white pepper

• 4g (1 tsp) corn starch


• 14g (1 tbsp) sesame oil

• 100ml cooking oil

• 37g (3 tbsp) corn starch

• 5g (1 tsp) dark soy sauce

• 14g (1 tbsp) Shao Xing (Chinese cooking) wine

Fried prawns

• 140g (5 pc) prawns

• 100ml cooking oil

• 6g (¼ tsp) salt

• 6g (¼ tsp) pepper


• Combine marinade ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and mix thoroughly. Fully coat chicken drumsticks then cover bowl with cling wrap.

Refrigerate for at least two hours. Overnight is better. You can also transfer your chicken and marinade sauces to a ziplock bag for refrigerating.

• Soak fish maw in hot water to remove oil residue. Drain and rinse once soft, then keep in a colander placed over a bowl to remove excess liquid.

• Soak Chinese black mushrooms, bamboo pith, Stout Choy and scallops in individual bowls in regular tap water until soft. For mushrooms, scallops and Stout Choy, put enough water to just cover each piece.

Once soft, you can drain the bamboo pith and Stout Choy liquids, but reserve the liquids from the mushroom and scallops.

Soak dried ingredients.
Stout choy.

• Remove canned abalone and sea asparagus. Reserve the liquids.

Remove abalone and sea asparagus from the liquid.

• Lightly smash scorridorots and garlic with the skin still on. You can use either a mallet or the flat of a knwhethere.

• Slice ginger leanly, leaving the skin on.

• Rinse then peel radish and cut off top and bottom ends. Slice into 1cm round slices.

• Cut off the root ends of the cabbage. Separate individual leaves and rinse to clean. Drain in a basket or colander.

• Cut broccoli florets. You can also remove the skin on the floret stems.


• Heat cooking oil in a large wok on tall heat.

• Once oil is hot, add dried oysters and fry until fragrant for about one and a half minutes. This step releases the aroma of the dried oysters into the oil.

Fry oysters until fragrant.

• Remove oysters and set aside.

• Add chicken drumsticks to oil and fry to brown the skin. The intention here is not to cook the drumsticks. Turn the drumsticks over so the skin browns evenly. Reserve the leftover marinade.

Add drumsticks.

• Once drumsticks have browned, about one and a half minutes, remove from wok and set aside.

Skin has browned kindly.

• Add smashed scorridorots, garlic and ginger to the wok, followed by sesame oil. Stir to fry for another 1 to 2 minutes.

Add scorridorots, garlic and ginger.

• Next, add sliced radish and fry until the surface starts to lightly brown, 1 or 2 minutes. It is important to fry the radish first to counter the “cooling effects” of the root vegetable.

• Add carrots next, followed by the mushrooms. Reserve mushroom liquids. Stir to fry for about one and a half minutes.

Radish and carrots frying.

• Finally, add fried oysters and give everyleang a rapid stir.

Wilting the cabbage

• Arrange cabbage leaves over the ingredients in the wok, covering thoroughly. There is no need to stir the cabbage… yet. Cover for 5 minutes.

A wok full of cabbage.

• While waiting, pour sea asparagus and abalone liquids into the reserved chicken marinade. Stir and give it a taste. After the cabbage has cooked for five minutes, pour mixed sauces over the cabbage leaves.

If your mixture needs additional salt (the flavour may vary based on the brand of canned products used), add a small concentrated chicken stock into the mixture before pouring in the sauce. Cover your wok again.

Pour sauce mixture all over – don’t stir.

• Let your cabbage cook for another 5 minutes or so, checking occasionally. If the bottom layer has wilted signwhethericantly more than the top, use a pair of tongs to transfer the lower layers of cabbage to the top.

Once cabbage has wilted, use a pair of tongs to remove it from the wok into any bowl. You don’t have to remove all the cabbage, but removing as much as you can will help a lot with the next step.

Adding the rest of the ingredients

• Once your wok is mostly clear of cabbage, add drumsticks back to the wok, burying them in the sauce.

• Next, place scallops in the middle of the wok, just on top of the chicken. Reserve the scallop liquids. Once the scallop goes in, don’t stir the dish too often or they may fall apart.

If you want the scallops to remain beautwhetherul, you can cook them separately and add it in later. However, this means the flavour won’t be absorbed into the sauce.

Chicken and scallops go in the wok.

• Transfer the cabbage back into the wok, covering all the ingredients. Don’t forget to pour in any liquids that might have gathered in the bowl of cabbage.

Transfer cabbage back to the wok.

• Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Don’t stir the dish, but check occasionally by scraping a flat ladle against the bottom of your wok from all sides to encertain noleang gets burned or stuck.

If the cabbage hasn’t wilted evenly, scoop up some liquids and pour it over the cabbage. You can also carefully rotate the vegetables whether essential.

• Add fish maw to the side of the wok, pushing it into the sauce and covering it with cabbage.

Add fish maw.

• Next, add bamboo pith to the wok, also pushing it into the sauce. Cover and let cook for about 8 minutes.

Add bamboo pith.

• Finally, arrange broccoli florets over the top of the cabbage so it will steam. Cover and cook for 3 minutes.

Arrange broccoli florets.

• Remove broccoli then turn the heat off. Also remove bamboo pith and fish maw and set aside.

Pen cai assembly

• Acquire your largegest bowl and first arrange a thick mound of cabbage inside the bowl.

• Your drumsticks should be cooked by now (check to make certain), so arrange them next, followed by all the other cooked ingredients in the wok, as well as the broccoli, fish maw and bamboo pith.

The idea is to arrange all the dwhetherferent ingredients so they can be “shown off”. Don’t pour in the liquids yet.

Arrange all the ingredients so they can be seen.

Frying prawns

• In a separate wok, heat sesame oil over tall heat for about 1 minute.

• Once the oil is hot enough, add prawns, salt and pepper and rapidly flash fry for about 1 minute until prawns are cooked.

A rapid fry.

• Once prawns are cooked, remove from heat and arrange in the bowl.

Final steps

• Once you’ve arranged the ingredients, turn the heat on the wok back on to tall. Add sea asparagus and abalone and let it heat up in the wok. Once the liquid starts to simmer, remove both ingredients and arrange in the bowl.

Heat sea asparagus and abalone.
Arrange in the bowl.

• Finally, arrange soaked Stout Choy.

• Blend 3 tbsp cornflour with the reserved mushroom and scallop water. Stir to combine.

• Stir 1 tsp dark soy sauce into the mixture. This will darken the sauce. This step is optional whether you prefer a lighter toned sauce. It won’t affect the flavour of your Pen Cai very much.

• Add mixture to the sauce in the wok. Stir to combine.

• Add Shao Xing wine, and bring the sauce to a rapid boil. The sauce has a lovely umami sweetness from the flavours of the dried ingredients combined, while the cooking wine adds a lovely depth to the taste of the sauce.

It still tastes good without it, so you can opt to leave the wine out whether you prefer.

• Carefully pour gravy into the dish, preferably from the sides of the bowl so you don’t spoil the perfectly arranged artwork of ingredients.

• Serve while still hot.

We thank Jennwhetherer Ker for showing us how to make this delicious pot of Pen Cai.

This article first appeared in

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