Celebrating Chinese New Year, we offer this traditional recipe for Jai, a vegetarian dish once the preference of Buddhist monks, served on this occasion. Gung hay fat choy!
Jai Vegetarian Monk's Dish

Jai (Vegetarian Monks' Dish)
Recipe type: Main Course
Cuisine: Chinese
Serves: 8
  • 1 3 1/2-ounce package bean-thread noodles
  • 20 small dried black mushrooms
  • 1/2 ounce cloud ears
  • 1/2 Cup tiger lily buds
  • 20 small dried jujubes (Chinese red dates)
  • 1/2 ounce fat choy (black seaweed)
  • 1/4 Cup dried lotus seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoons plus 1 Tablespoon vegetable or peanut oil
  • 11/2-inch piece ginger
  • 8 to 12 dried oysters, soaked overnight in water to cover
  • 3/4 Cup shelled gingko nuts
  • 2 ounces dried bean curd sticks (also called dried bean flour skins)
  • 4 ounces snow peas, strings removed
  • 8 to 10 ounces tofu, cut into 3/4-inch dice
  • 8 fresh or canned water chestnuts, peeled and sliced
  • 1/4 Cup sliced bamboo shoots, rinsed and drained
  • 4 to 8 fresh arrowheads, lightly scraped with stems intact
  • 12 pieces dao pok (fried wheat gluten)
  • 2 Cups finely shredded Napa cabbage
  1. Soak the bean-thread noodles in water for 2 hours. Put the mushrooms in a small bowl with hot water. Let stand 30 to 45 minutes to soften. Cut and discard the stems. Rinse the caps, squeeze dry and cut into quarter-inch-thick slices.
  2. Put the cloud ears, tiger lily buds, jujubes, fat choy and lotus seeds in separate bowls, add hot water to cover and soak for 30 minutes. Rinse the cloud ears well, drain, cut and discard any hard parts. Rinse and drain the tiger lily buds, cut the hard ends. Drain the jujubes. Rinse the fat choy and put it in a small saucepan with the salt, 1 teaspoon of the oil, the ginger and water to cover. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat and let stand 10 minutes. Drain the fat choy and gently squeeze out the water.
  3. Open the lotus seeds and discard the bitter green parts inside. Put the lotus seeds in a small saucepan with water to cover, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain.
  4. Rinse the soaked oysters to remove any sand. Trim off any tough parts. Steam the oysters in a small dish for 10 minutes over medium heat until soft. Put the ginkgo nuts in a small saucepan with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer five minutes. Drain, then skin. Break the bean curd sticks into two- to three-inch pieces. Soak for 30 minutes in a small saucepan with water to cover, simmer about 10 minutes to soften, then drain. Drain the bean thread noodles, then cut into six-inch lengths.
  5. (You can prepare the recipe to this point one day in advance. Cover the individual ingredients separately and refrigerate.)
  6. Blanch the snow peas in boiling water for 30 seconds. Rinse them under cold water and drain. Combine ingredients for the seasoning mixture in a medium bowl and set aside.
  7. Combine the mushrooms, cloud ears, tiger lily buds, fat choy, lotus seeds, oysters, ginkgo nuts, tofu, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, arrowheads and dao pok (fried wheat gluten) in a large bowl. Combine the bean thread noodles and bean curd sticks in a second bowl, and the jujubes, Napa cabbage and snow peas in a third bowl.
  8. Heat a wok over high heat, then heat one tablespoon of oil. Add the red and fermented bean curd, lower the heat to medium-high and cook 15 seconds, breaking it up with a spatula. Stir in the seasoning mixture, bring to a boil, and cook for two to three minutes. Add the mushroom mixture and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bean thread noodles and bean curd sticks and cook four minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining ingredients and cook two minutes longer, tossing gently to distribute the Napa cabbage evenly.
Adapted from Ellen Leong Blonder and Annabel Low's "Every Grain of Rice: A Taste of Our Chinese Childhood in America" (Clarkson Potter, 1998).

Among the foods traditionally prepared during the Lunar New Year, jai seems the most complicated. It is also perhaps the most fascinating. Known alternatively as Vegetarian's Delight or Buddhist's Delight, the dish incorporates a wide selection of dried and fresh ingredients, all of which symbolize luck and success. Eaten on the first day of the Lunar New Year, it should bring you good fortune in the weeks and months ahead.

Ingredients such as fat choy, a form of black seaweed, and ho see, or dried oysters, signify wealth and happiness. The words fat choy, for example, sound like the Chinese words for "prosperity"; the words ho see sound like the ones for "good news." To eat these items, then, is to be particularly blessed.

Although its origins remain unclear -- some Chinese peg jai as an ancient, annual offering to Buddha -- the healthful, meatless dish can be made an infinite number of ways. Recipes and preferences vary slightly by region, and differ inevitably among households and chefs. Technically a stir-fry, combined in either a wok or a large pan, the mixture won't be crisp -- it will instead turn out quite soft.

Bay Area cookbook author Ellen Leong Blonder, who, with Annabel Low, penned "Every Grain of Rice: A Taste of Our Chinese Childhood in America"(Clarkson Potter, 1998), uses about 15 dried and fresh noodles, fungi, nuts and vegetables in her jai. She also provides a page of illustrations depicting individual items such as water chestnuts and arrowheads, good to have if you're unfamiliar with the aisles of an Asian market.

Admittedly, her recipe appears time-consuming. But you can do most of the prep work at least a day in advance. For instance, you can soak, drain and chop bean-thread noodles and dried black mushrooms the night before.

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