The most frequent sighting of a plant in the Sterculia family happens when walking along Hong Kong’s trails in the dog days of summer. As the heat reaches a crescendo and the rains start to fall, bright red stars open up among the green leaves of many mid-sized trees, especially those close to watercourses. These unusual stars are dotted by large, shiny black seeds on the inside.
These are the pods of the plant known as Sterculia lanceolata in Latin, scarlet sterculia in English, and fake panpo (gaa2 pan4 po4 假蘋婆 ) in Cantonese, a green tree that is native to Hong Kong and that reproduces through the seeds hidden in these captivating pods. They start off like green stars that are almost entirely hidden among the leaves. Then they turn yellow, bright orange, and finally the brightest, happiest of reds. At this point the pods pop open, the seeds become visible and attract birds. Larger birds don’t actually digest them at all: the black seed has a rather hard shell, which is simply carried whole in the belly of the bird, and dispersed in nature when the time is right. Smaller birds will peck at the shells insistently until they manage to get through to the yellow flesh inside. Meanwhile, hikers and photographers alike are delighted by these bright spots of colour that last just a few weeks.
But why is it called fake panpo in Chinese? Is there another, real panpo? Yes. And it is edible by humans, not just birds. “It is called ‘fake’ sterculia because the fruit is quite similar to the one of the common sterculia, and the star-shaped structures are the fruit, with tiny hairs on the surface that gives it a velvety texture,” says Angela Chan, a botanist at the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Education Centre at the University of Hong Kong. The name Sterculia comes from the Roman god Sterculius, the god of manure, which is often given to foul smelling flowers – a bit surprising for these plants, which have no particular smell.
The Latin name for the other panpo is Sterculia monosperma, also called common sterculia, a rather unkind classification for a tree whose fruit is a delicacy that Chinese people have poetically called phoenix eye fruit (fung6 gwo2 ngaan5 鳳果眼 ). It is eaten with pleasure during its fleeting season. Phoenix eye fruits last for only about two to three weeks, after which they disappear for another year. Interestingly, the season of this nut coincides with the Seven Sisters festival, which falls on August 14 thiis year, so the nuts are also given as an offering during the birthday celebrations in temples, and an alternative name for the edible nut is Seven Sisters fruit (cat1 ze2 gwo2 七姐果).
“It is a very, very local dish,” says Douglas Young, designer and co-founder of G.O.D, the design and retail brand that takes inspiration from Hong Kong’s vernacular aesthetics. “My mother used to make it, and it is a dish she always had as a child,” he says. Cheap it is: a kilo of panpo nuts at the open air wet market on Gage Street, in Central, costs HK$40 unshelled, and HK$60 shelled. It has been a while since Young ate the nuts, but his curiosity about them was rekindled after recently seeing the red fake panpo pods. After talking about it with his mother, he ate the nuts in the most common dish associated with them, a slowly braised chicken. “When I tasted [it], I had one of those subliminal experiences – the memory was there but it was both strange and familiar,” he says. A bit like the famous Proust’s madeleine, with its striking power of waking up dormant memories, in its panpo incarnation.
Indeed, the restaurants that make panpo dishes seem to favour having it slow-braised with chicken just like Young’s mother, or sometimes with beef. A call to check with Luk Yu Teahouse to see whether they make it confirms that the dish is on the seasonal menu, but that no vegetarian options are available. “We braise it with chicken, sometimes with beef. The taste is a bit too subtle,” says the maitre d’hôtel.
Edwin Tang, chef at Cuisine Cuisine in the Mira Hotel, also prepares phoenix eye fruit with chicken, but he says that it could also be prepared with wild mushrooms, in the same slow braising manner, for a vegetarian version, or cooked with shellfish: high umami ingredients that can impart flavour to the sweet nutty-tasting fruit. Interestingly, Tang also decided to add this seasonal ingredient to his menu – “for its high nutritional value, but also because my mother used to cook with it, and it brings along childhood memories.”
Where to eat it
Luk Yu Tea House
24-26 Stanley Street, Central
3/F, The Mira Hong Kong
118-130 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
Where to see it
Fake panpo trees can be seen all around Hong Kong, especially along lower trails near waterways, and they are particularly numerous on Lantau and Lamma islands.