Glasgow’s Poon Choi 盆菜 and Hong Kong’s Munchy Box

Words by Sean Wai Keung; Illustration by Natasha Phang-Lee

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I have this theory that, if you look hard enough for them, the world constantly repeats itself in vain symmetries that spread across time and space. Some would say that this is the statistically likely result of a chaotic world, others would cite the hand of Providence in the matter. One such symmetry is the existence of four cities, two each on large islands, facing each other on either side of the land where it is pinched in by the sea. For both pairs the smaller city is considered the most important, they are pristine, historical cities full of culture and beauty. The other, the larger city, is more ungainly but perhaps more interesting and lived in. Former industrial powerhouses, their slow decline means they are searching for a new identity. They also, absolutely fucking love fried food.

The parallels of Kyoto-Osaka and Edinburgh-Glasgow may have escaped me if it wasn’t for their diets. I’ve visited Osaka and Glasgow once, but in both cases I came away wondering how their citizens could keep up with it. In late-working Osaka, labyrinthine halls were filled with salary men drinking beer with kushiage, takoyaki and okonomiyaki, a symphony of beige with barbecue sauce, almost a purposeful middle-finger to the kaiseki cuisine honed from the yusoku ryori of its imperial neighbour. In Glasgow I ate my way through the city in pakora although it’s own version of kushiage, the munchy box, escaped me; instead I was more interested in investigating the Haggis supper (a deep fried haggis with chips) which one chippy had renamed the ‘Justin Bieber special’ after the singer was spotted ordering one, and the Scooby Snack.

How far do these parallels go? Well the fried food of Osaka eventually took over the world ─ you can get okonomiyaki in Brixton and takoyaki in Camden. But the fried food of Glasgow, even its unique pakora, have stayed a peculiarly Glasgow thing. After reading today’s newsletter by Sean Wai Keung you may ask yourself where you can find a munchy box and poon choi ─ I would sooner be able to point you to poon choi (Chu Chin Chow in Barnet at Chinese New Year) than I could a munchy box. ‘Why can’t I get it down here?’ is the typical refrain of a Glaswegian.

Perhaps this is a good thing though, perhaps not everything needs to travel. We live in a globalised world where we expect that world on our doorstep. I like the idea that something as simple as “10 different battered foods in a cardboard box’ is a delicacy completely unavailable to anyone not sitting on their sofa in Scotland’s second city rifling through a draw of takeaway menus. And if you really do have FOMO, then at the very least you can live vicariously through some dumbass trying to eat one.


Glasgow’s Poon Choi 盆菜 and Hong Kong’s Munchy Box, by Sean Wai Keung

I’m in Pollokshields, Glasgow, and there’s a knock on my door. When I open it, a large pizza box waits on my doorstep. I take it in, set it upon my table, open it, and look inside. There are five distinct yet overlapping sections. In one corner there’s a small, unnaturally and precisely circular pizza laden with cheese. Opposite, a mound of doner meat glistens with grease. Then, below, are handfuls of pakora and slabs of mini garlic breads. And in the middle, the centrepiece, a firework-pattern of thin, crisp chips. Together, the construction resembles a celebratory monument or fountain, an entanglement of narratives and conquests all of which have come together into something simultaneously glorious and grotesque: the munchy box.

Scotland, and particularly Glasgow, has long held a reputation for food that is deep-fried. There’s the deep-fried Mars Bar and the pizza crunch, for example, both of which can trace their origins to places and cultures beyond Glasgow. The deep-fried Mars Bar is believe to be an Aberdeenshire creation and the pizza crunch a variation on a panzerotto or other Southern Italian deep-fried pastry. The munchy box, however, stands tall as an origin-less staple of a peculiarly Glaswegian culinary landscape.

If you spend much time in Glasgow going through delivery menus then you are more likely to see munchy box options than you are other famous assimilation takeaway dishes such as chop suey or vindaloo, neither of which hold much sway this close to the Clyde. The genius of the munchy box is that it allows any takeaway with a deep fryer to offer some variation: a biryani house might have a fryer for pakoras; a Chinese takeaway might have one for spring rolls. Throw a few chips in along with anything else that comes to hand and you can make yourself a munchy box fit for purpose. And yet, despite this adaptability, the munchy box itself remains scarce outside of Glasgow, especially anywhere south of the border. Like the Teeside chicken parmo, or the Black Country’s orange chips, there has always seemed to be something more to the munchy box. Something specific to the city itself.

While the origins of the munchy box have been lost to time, the history of people coming into Glasgow is somewhat better preserved. Local newspapers from the 1840s detail the mass movement of Highlanders moving South during the time of the enforced Clearances, while cultural centres throughout the city work to preserve the legacies of settlers from Irish, Italian, Jewish and Chinese populations, and religious establishments such as the Central Gurdwara Singh Sahba and the Central Mosque have served the needs of a diversified urban community for decades. But Glasgow is not, and never has been, a multicultural utopia. Not only are there the well-documented Catholic and Protestant community tensions, which themselves can find their roots in migratory narratives, but there have been a wide range of other, lesser-archived community struggles too. During the Second World War, for instance, many Italian-Scots, who helped introduce the chippy and the gelato shop to Glasgow, were forced into internment camps. In the 1950s, early waves of South Asian migrants faced their own persecution, even as they went on to invent the now-famous chicken tikka masala. Pakoras and pizzas may have since been inducted into the city’s culinary language, but it has not been, and continues not to be, an easy journey for many people here, be they second or third generation, or newly arrived.

And so in many ways, the munchy box is an apt symbol for the city. Through its layering of contents, which can include any mixture of pizzas, kebab meats, garlic breads, pakoras, naans, chow mein, samosas, fried chicken and more, the munchy box simultaneously encourages the hungry consumer to engage with Glasgow’s diversity of cultures and also works against the idea of ‘authenticity’ within those same cultures. It’s a box of food adapted and processed by the city itself, localised yet simultaneously global in its tentacle-like grasping towards anything that could be assimilated. We will celebrate you,the munchy box says, but only after we change you.

One of the many failures of the munchy box is that it makes no attempt to encourage a deeper or more nuanced discussion of origin, instead preferring to mostly market itself as generically Indian or Chinese. Of course, this lack of regionalisation isn’t limited to the munchy box. Food of all types gets painted in broad strokes, as do people. As a writer of mixed racial origin myself, I may identify specifically as both Hong Konger and Scottish, but more often I’m labelled as just ‘Chinese’ or ‘mixed’. By giving people, or food, more generic labels, we are able to encompass more possibilities of origin and so protect ourselves from a lack of specific knowledge. At the same time, this broadening of ‘origin’ can open up new opportunities for connection. In my daily life I may not think of myself as ‘Chinese’ but I can still find bonds with other people who represent different parts of a Chinese identity. The munchy box may not represent any specific origin, but it can be adapted by cooks and consumers from across different communities instead.

It was during my first experience with a munchy box – a typically Glaswegian moment where after a few drinks I saw one on a menu and thought aye… why not? – as I tucked into a particular mix of ‘Chinese’ chips, fried rice, curry sauce and spring rolls, that I was unexpectedly reminded of another dish with a particular localised tradition: 盆菜 aka poon choi aka ‘big bowl feast’.


My maternal grandparents migrated to the UK in the 1950s from rural Hong Kong and opened a series of takeaways marketed as authentic Cantonese cuisine, which included ‘house’ fried rice, prawn crackers and sweet and sour sauces made from ketchup and vinegar. But it wasn’t until my own visits to their places of origin, namely Sai Kung Town and the surrounding Hakka walled villages – most of which are now abandoned – that I truly grasped how much of a bending-of-the-truth that marketing line was. It was there that I fell in love with more traditional local tastes, including razor clams, mustard greens and salt-baked chicken. I learned as much as I could, especially about the importance of texture and the emphasis on layering during cooking processes. The dish I took to most was poon choi, 盆菜, which I discovered was at the heart of local arguments over what counted as the most ‘authentic’ way to cook and eat it.

At its basic level, 盆菜 is a large bowl of layered ingredients, served communally as a celebratory meal. Anything beyond this description becomes trickier. According to some recipes, a good 盆菜 should consist mostly of vegetables. Others claim it should contain as few vegetables as possible, focusing instead on the more luxurious cuts of meat and seafood in order to show appreciation to guests. Some recipes specify a three-day process for gathering and cooking the ingredients, while others say this is false. However, whatever the process or ingredients, I was struck most by its overall symbolism and the focus on concepts such as layering and sharing. 盆菜 is a dish that is supposed to represent the heart of the community and the people who make and serve it.

In Glasgow, as I ate my munchy box, I was struck by how 盆菜-ish it was. After all, both are layered containers holding any number of seemingly disconnected things. Both, in theory, also represent the best of what is available locally in the moment. However, there are also important distinctions. On a symbolic level, 盆菜 is a representation of a traditional Hakka walled village way of life, one that is no longer able to exist in modern Hong Kong. Comparatively, a munchy box is a celebration of the entanglements of origin, an at-home-wherever dish of perseverance in the face of any homogenised ideas of Scottish cuisine or culture.

There are also practical differences. While 盆菜 is a meal associated with communal sharing and eating in a very direct way, a munchy box is often a solitary experience paired with that regretful one-last-drink-too-many. Both are forms of social enjoyment, of course, but the nature of that enjoyment is very different. Then there is also the question of accessibility. While the munchy box has yet to take off outside of Glasgow, 盆菜 ready-meal packs are available in many different areas of both Hong Kong and abroad.

Despite this, my grandparents, like many in the Chinese takeaway business, never thought to add 盆菜 to their menus. And why would they? It makes stronger economical sense to go with what you know will sell, to stick with battered ‘chicken balls’ and deep-fried ‘wontons’ rather than take a risk with something new. And even if they did decide that it could be worth taking that risk, there is another question about when and where are the right places to serve different food. 盆菜 is a dish associated with New Year family gatherings, with the artistry of a cook standing over their individual big bowl and expressing themselves through the delicate layering and timing of different ingredients. Can a munchy box ever contain as much deep meaning? A 盆菜 meal is a very direct cultural memory of the now-empty walled villages, with those-who-were-left-behind and those-who-have-returned, with a way of life mostly extinct today due to migration. Glasgow, on the other hand, has thrived on migration, with the munchy box a testament to a form of economical cookery which is able to adapt to manifold food cultures.

I feel lucky that both dishes are able to give me comfort, as I grew up feeling like I didn’t necessarily belong anywhere. Yet today, my memories of eating 盆菜 with family in Sai Kung provide me with a sense of returning to an origin beyond my own life; the munchy box, on the other hand, reminds me that sometimes you don’t have to truly belong anywhere at all.


Sean Wai Keung is a Glasgow-based poet and performance-maker with particular interests in food and community. His first full-length collection, 'sikfan glaschu', will be published in April 2021 by Verve Poetry Press. Find him on Twitter at @SeanWaiKeung or via seanwaikeung.carrd.co

The illustration is by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at https://natashaphanglee.myportfolio.com/work