Crown Prince Fine Dining and Banquet is one of the places my family frequent. They have an amazing atmosphere during the day for dim sum and services that wouldn’t tarnish its name during the dinning hours. The only complaint I am aware of is the frequent swapping of plates, which is usually nullified in my terms as the last thing I want are the refute from my meal staring at me as I eat.
The other day, we pre-ordered a small Winter Melon urn and it turns out to be one of the better ones I have ever tasted, with the only better ones being homemade by my mother and grand mother. I like to take a little moment and share some background on this interesting and famous dish in Cantonese style cooking. Most of these are from memory and since the last time I helped prepare one of these at home was when I was in my teens, some facts maybe wrong or maybe considered old fashion. Also the lack of a Wikipedia page on this topic is quite interesting to me, it seems no one has talked in detail about this specialty dish yet.
Winter Melon urn is a famous Cantonese dish served on the dinner table. There are two common ways of preparing this, one for the typical dinner table and one for the banquet table. Cooking time is measured in hours, starting at a minimum of four hours. So, let’s start with the common household dinner method. This is the simpler of the two methods and usually take less time in preparation, therefore can be accomplished at home.
Here are some steps, buy the Winter Melon, preferred elongated as opposed to round. Unless there is a large round steaming device where the melon can fit in. Ensure the melon can be fitted into your steaming device. Clean the outer shell of the melon and cut the top twenty-five percent off. This should allow access to the melon meat and seeds, take a spoon and dig out the seeds from the center of the melon. Be sure to not dig out the meat of the melon as you will be eating those once it is on the table. Dig all the way to until you see the melon meat from the bottom of the winter melon. Once you see these meat, stop and clean the winter melon. The Urn portion is now ready. Just ensure the top of the melon can be put back on the Winter melon.
Now, prepare some Chinese cured ham, some chicken, some Chinese dried mushrooms, some Chinese fresh mushrooms, and some shrimp. Put these ingredients into the the melon urn and fill three quarter of the melon with water. Prepare the steaming device by boiling lots of water and place the winter melon urn in the middle of the steaming device standing up, with the winter melon lid on top. Steam for a minimum of four hours or until melon flesh are soft and edible. Serve whole on the diner table by scooping out some melon flesh along with some soup and ingredients.
Next, let’s talk about the banquet version. This version actually encompass all of the steps of the common dining version but changes a few things. Instead of chicken, old hens are used. The old hen doesn’t accompany the ingredients inside the melon, instead it is prepared prior by turning it into a stock. This process usually takes hours to prepare, but head stock is used in multiple Cantonese style food, ranging from Shark’s fin soup to fried rice. Next alterations are the ingredients, the ones used in the common version is a small proper subset of the banquet version. Additional seafood can be lobsters, crab, Conch, scallops, Abalone,sea cucumber, etc… Meat addition can be an upgraded version of the cured ham and other things the chefs believes would make the soup tastes better. Lotus seed is also a ‘proper’ addition to the authentic Winter Melon Urn. Another difference is the bowl the Winter Melon Urn is served in, at home, you can bring the pot and place it on the table if you want. However, at a public dinning location, that is not possible. As Cantonese chefs usually have some very artistic and related to their food as art, some opt to inscribe some kind of pattern on the outer shell of the Winter Melon. More traditional and down to earth Cantonese chefs would consider that to be a waste of time as the real art is in the food, therefore have opt for a nice looking urn to hold the Winter Melon Urn.
Let’s take a look at Fine Prince’s version… which is a definite banquet version of the Winter Melon Urn style.
When it first arrived on the table, some of the ingredients which can be over cooked are placed around the rim. It is the server’s job to push these into the winter melon soup to warm it up.
As you can see, they have many of the listed ingredients in the seafood section, minus the lobster and Abalone (it’d be super expensive and a waste of the Abalone in my opinion). An extra touch of roasted duck, and a variation of ham on top of the cured ham.
The waitress started pushing the ingredients into the soup.
This soup was so tasty that I had two bowls worth of it. The old hen with Chinese cured ham soup stock really did the trick and made the melon flesh so tasty. The best part is, if monosodium glutamate was used, I didn’t show any symptoms associated with it. That means it was used in such a controlled manner that it didn’t stood out. My usual symptoms are an incredible thirst for water, if MSG is used in food I ate, I usually ends up drinking lots of water. With this soup, I didn’t experience this at all. To be honest, if the chefs actually cooked properly according to tradition and didn’t want to cut back on time or ingredients, Cantonese cooking doesn’t require MSG at all. It is unlike Japanese cooking where MSG is mixed in with the salt and therefore, rumor has it, have bred a generation of Japanese chefs who wouldn’t be able to cook with pure NaCl.