Now that the Gregorian New Year has come and gone, I feel I should also pay tribute to the Lunar
New Year celebration, which was celebrated on February 1st this year. Kung Hee Fat Choy!
Following this theme, the first food that comes to mind is jai. For the uninitiated, think Chinese
meatless nishime. (Nishime is described as a Japanese stew made mostly of vegetables – though
most recipes use chicken. All ingredients are cut into bite-sized pieces, and are simmered until the
chicken is tender. Other ingredients include carrots, hasu, gobo, konbu, konnyaku, daikon,
takenoko and shiitake).
Since jai is primarily vegetarian fare, it’s also known as Buddha’s Delight. However, unlike the
standard “delight” or “special” dishes listed at your local greasy spoon, which usually consists of
the past week’s leftovers, jai actually is a very good (and healthy) Asian stew.
I first started making jai while living in San Francisco. My first recipe came from the popular
Favorite Island Cookery cookbook series produced by the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin.
Initially, ingredient translation was the major challenge in making jai since the recipe listed the
traditional Chinese name (with a brief description) and this was compounded by the fact that
several ingredients are variations of soy-based products. Furthermore, several ingredients are only
used in Lilliputian sized amounts but are only available packaged in Costco-sized quantities.
Therefore my plan was to skimp and consolidate on certain ingredients-especially if their
description looked the same.
Fortunately, I decided to consult the neighborhood Chinese deli owner before proceeding and
winging my own version of jai. I found out that I originally planned on omitting the red preserved
bean cake (nam yoy), which is integral to the “gravy” in jai. Since then, I’ve come to realize that
a mixture of both the red and white preserved bean cake makes for the best flavor. Along with
some ginger and oyster sauce, the rest is strictly up to the cook. Carrots, hasu, gingko nuts,
takenoko, long rice, rice sticks (funn teu), Chinese peas, water chestnuts, shiitake, lily flowers
(kam choi), black and white fungus (chien gee), fried bean curd (jow dou fu), dried bean curd
(foo chuck) and hair-like seaweed (fatt choi) make up the long list of possible additions. If you’re
making jai for wealth and prosperity in the New Year, you need to add the hair-like seaweed,
which symbolizes money.
I actually use all of the above – which necessitates the use of an 8-quart Dutch oven to prevent
overflow. It also results in jai for breakfast-lunch-dinner so unless your plans for the weekly meals
are limited to the same dish, I suggest a lot of sharing.
However, if you decide not to follow my example you can always visit your own neighborhood
Chinese restaurant. Be forewarned that the jai that your sister-in-law swears is the best in her neck
of the woods won’t be the same taste that you discover in yours – unless you’re neighbors. There
are probably as many jai variations as there are chili or marinara or stew or even nishime recipes. I’
m sure every Chinese aunt or uncle has their own family secret recipe.
If you ever decide to visit Hawai`i – specifically my neck of the woods in the sleepy Windward
town of Kane’ohe, make sure to stop by Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant. Just for jai you ask? Well,
yes if you really love the stuff and no if you prefer other traditional Chinese fare. I guarantee
(sounds like the guy from the Men’s Warehouse commercial) that it will be a unique treat never
experienced in a Chinese restaurant. For starters, owner Raymond Siu greets you as you arrive
(even asks how the family is doing if you’ve visited more than twice). As the dishes are brought to
the table, he briefly explains each dish and places a serving on your plate. The plates are even
changed as you move from salad to entrée items. If you do bring your own beverage of choice for
the meal, he uncorks your selection and even does the pouring – with no corkage fee! All this in
what initially looked like your average neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
I hear your initial thoughts – “what good is frosting without a good cake?” Well, Pah Ke’s “cake”
more than equals it’s “frosting”. Their Oriental Chicken Salad is unlike all others. Julienne makina,
roast chicken and won ton strips are tossed with a miso-peanut butter dressing instead of the
usual. The Mu Shu Pork (also available as chicken) is a nice balance of savory pork and sweet hoi
sin and is adeptly folded by servers using two spoons with only one hand. The Chicken and
Abalone with Black Mushroom Casserole is a dish we always order with fork tender strips of
abalone and huge shiitake that soak up all of the flavors released in the iron casserole pot. The
special Kahuku Prawns with Garlic Noodles are cooked so that the juices from the prawns mix
with the garlic then infuse their flavor into udon-like noodles that remain just al-dente. Even
standard dishes like Candied Walnuts with Shrimp take it a step further with actual candied,
sesame coated walnuts or Minute Chicken with tender pieces of boneless chicken served on cake
Sadly though, we have never made it to desert. I usually need to be rolled out of the restaurant
right after the entrees. Desert in a Chinese restaurant you ask? Well not only is Raymond a perfect
host but he’s also an innovative chef. He has several light deserts such as Egg White Moon Cake
with Lilikoi Mousse and Guava Sauce and Vanilla Soy Milk Custard with Fresh Fruits and Mango
Sauce. As with most innovative chefs, not all deserts are available throughout the year due to
seasonal variances of fruit availability but Raymond has been known to whip up something with
what is available.
Oh yes, if you want the luxuries of a prepared meal in your own home, they also do take-out.
Pah Ke’s Chinese Restaurant
46-018 Kamehameha Highway
Kaneohe, Hawaii 96744
Open Daily 10:30a.m.-9:00p.m.
(808)235-4505 or 235-4506
Take Out, Eat in or Create Your Own