Lucky Foods: Jai (Vegetarian Buddha's Delight) from China

By: Monica Bhide

Farina Kingsley, an international culinary instructor and author of three Asian cookbooks, says eating jai, a vegetable delight made of 18 ingredients, on the first day of the new year symbolizes purification of the body. She learned to make the dish from her great-aunt, who was Buddhist. “Originally eaten by Buddhists in Chinese culture, there are regional differences in the preparation of jai, but most of the dried ingredients remain consistent, since they symbolize good luck. A number of the ingredients, like the black fungus (fat choy), lily buds (jinzhen) and gingko nuts (bai guo), all symbolize wealth and good fortune,” says Farina.

According to Singapore-based home cook and blogger Katie Tan of Kitchen Tigress, the dish offers an additional blessing: “The Chinese believe that not killing animals is a good deed, and that good deeds beget good fortune. That’s why most Chinese make the effort to have a vegetarian breakfast — or at least a vegetarian dish on the first day of the new year.” To turbocharge your luck, Katie offers additional suggestions: Using knives on the first day of the new year brings bad luck. Hence, all the ingredients must be prepped in the old year. Be very careful while cooking so as not to dirty the floor. Sweeping the floor on the first day is equivalent to sweeping away wealth!

Jai requires time and patience to prepare. Most of the time, Farina says, is spent rinsing and soaking dried ingredients and then slowly braising the ingredients until the flavors meld. While the traditional jai doesn’t have fresh vegetables, Farina likes to add some to her recipe (featured here).

Recipe by Farina Kingsley, author of several Asian cookbooks and creator of the new Farina's Asian Pantry cooking app for iPhone/iPad. 

Total Time: 2 hour 15 minutes
Prep: 1 hour 45 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Yield: About 6 servings
Level: Easy
8 dried black shiitake mushrooms
4 ounces dried bean curd sticks
2 ounces dried lily buds
1 ounce dried black moss (fat choy)
1/2 ounce dried black fungus (cloud ear or wood ear)
1 small package cellophane noodles (about 2-3 ounces)
1/2 cup raw shelled peanuts
6 cups water
5-6 ounces deep-fried tofu squares, cut in half
4 ounces wheat gluten, sliced in 1/4-inch pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 slices ginger, smacked with the side of a knife
3 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
1 tablespoon red fermented bean curd (nam yee)

1 large carrot, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced into 1/8-inch-thick half-moons

One 5-ounce can sliced bamboo shoots

1 cup lotus root, halved lengthwise and sliced into 1/8-inch-thick half-moons

2 cups shredded napa cabbage, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 small can straw mushrooms, drained and rinsed
7 ounces canned ginkgo nuts, drained and rinsed
Steamed white rice, for serving (optional)
2 cups water, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons vegetarian oyster sauce
1 tablespoon light soy sauce, plus more for serving (optional)
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

Soak the shiitake mushrooms, bean curd sticks, lily buds, black moss, black fungus, cellophane noodles and raw peanuts in separate bowls of hot water to cover for 30 minutes.

Once the ingredients are reconstituted, drain each and rinse well. Trim the shiitake mushroom stems. Cut the bean curd sticks into 3-inch pieces. Tie the lily buds into knots.

In a large saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Add the tofu and wheat gluten, and boil for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

In a large wok or Dutch oven, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic and fermented bean curd, and stir-fry until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir in the carrots, bamboo shoots and lotus root, and continue to stir-fry for another 5 minutes. Toss in the cabbage and cook for 5 minutes more. Add the noodles and the peanuts.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the sauce ingredients and mix well.

Pour the sauce on top of the cooked vegetables and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Add all the reconstituted ingredients, the tofu, wheat gluten, straw mushrooms and ginkgo nuts. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the stew for at least 15 minutes.

Once the ingredients absorb all the liquid, add an additional cup of water and continue to simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed, about 10 minutes more.

If desired, season to taste with more light soy sauce, and serve alone or with steamed white rice.

Monica Bhide is the author of “Modern Spice” (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

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