Kung Hee Fat Choy

Now that Lunar New Year has come and gone (it was 2 weeks ago if you weren’t paying
attention) everyone is back to the reality of life as the holiday season is now a distant memory
for all cultures. However the Tatsumoto household still indulges in that traditional Lunar New
Year dish, Lo Han Jai also known as Buddha’s Delight both during the season and the rest of the
year… though that wasn’t always the case for yours truly.

Romancin’ the Mrs

Because the Tatsumoto Clan celebrates New Year’s like most other Japanese American families
on January 1st, by the time the Lunar New Year rolls around in February, I’m well out of that
festive holiday spirit simply looking for that next 3 day weekend. Therefore when most Chinese
restaurants are offering Jai, I usually overlook this traditional vegetarian “stew”. However during
graduate school while I was courting the Mrs, I knew that she enjoyed the classic Lunar New
Year’s dish so while she was away during Christmas break, I decided to create it upon her return
to the Bay Area. And like any budding chef, turned to that reliable culinary bible… the Honpa
Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin cookbook series. So after writing down the full ingredient list, headed
to the nearest Chinese Mom-n-Pop store in the Sunset District in The City to procure the
ingredients for Lo Han Jai.

Not Your Typical Safeway list

The first two ingredients on the list looked pretty harmless, kam choi or salted and dried lily
flower and chien gee or dried black fungus. While I never consumed lily flowers before, I had
sampled other edible flowers so consuming lily flowers didn’t seem threatening at all and black
fungus also goes by pepe’au (ear) in the 50th and is frequently harvested fresh in the hiking
trails in Nuuanu Valley. The next ethnic ingredient was foo chuck or the dried, rolled soy milk
skin that forms on the surface during tofu production. Again, not threatening at all. Then came
the nam yoy or fermented preserved bean curd. Hmm… the glass bottle on the shelf contained
what appeared to be small rectangles of tofu with a pronounced red tinge and when I gently
jiggled the bottle, there seemed to be a pronounced mucilaginous quality to the tofu. The
plastic cap on the bottle wasn’t even covered with the usual hermetic plastic seal and the cap
could easily be opened. I thought back to my undergraduate food safety class. This product didn’
t seem safe by any measure! Of course the shop proprietor noticed my examination of the bottle
so he walked up to me, muttered something in broken English and placed the bottle in my
basket. I grabbed the bottle attempted to place it back on the shelf but the proprietor
intercepted it again and placed it back in my basket stating “need jai” and “make gravy”. I
pleaded with him and asked if I could use regular tofu for the gravy. He proceeded to point out
the other items in my basket, carrots “no need”, canned baby corn “no need”, won bok “no
need” then went back to the red tofu “need for gravy”. So I reluctantly returned home with my
purchases including that fermented red tofu.

Cookin’ Jai

Because of my hesitancy for even purchasing the bottle of fermented ref tofu, I first heated the
vegetable oil just before it started smoking then smashed several cubes of the tofu and quickly
mixed it with the oil along with a large piece of fresh ginger. You see, removing the tofu from
the bottle confirmed its mucilaginous texture and the aroma was akin to that first aromatic
sensation you experience when entering these Mom-n-Pop Chinese “delis” in the Bay Area. It’s a
mixture of dried seafood, fermented vegetable aromas and old cooking oil. I thought that the
fresh ginger might temper the aromas wafting from my Dutch oven. And though the Honpa
Hongwanji cookbook said to fry it for one-half minute, I’m pretty sure I fried it for at least 15
minutes. If there was any living organism hibernating in that bottle, it would be reduced to a
ginger flavored paste. From that point on, making the jai was the same as creating any type of
stew by adding liquid then the rest of the soaked and chopped ingredients from gingko nuts to
baby corn to fresh carrots (cut decoratively like flowers mimicking jai from these Chinese delis)
to fresh Chinese pea pods (also cut decoratively like the deli versions) and simmering until the
flavors melded. The only issue I encountered was adding the soaked black moss. You see, the
rehydrated moss was like a huge clump of hair – adding it straight to the pot would result a
huge black mass simply clumped on its own. So I had to laboriously pull several strands at a time
stirring the pot before the next addition. Just this step alone took me a good 30 minutes. But
in the end, the future Mrs loved it and we’ve been enjoying it annually every February. Though I’
ve adjusted the amount of fermented red tofu and now use half red, half white preserved tofu for
my gravy. And the nutritionist in me knows it’s a very healthy dish with vegetable based
protein, low in fat and a good serving of dietary fiber.

Honpa Hongwanji Jai

Vegetable oil
About 5 pieces fermented, preserved red tofu
About 5 pieces fermented, preserved white tofu
One large piece of peeled fresh ginger
5 cups of water
2 tbsp xiaoshin wine or dark sherry
1 tbsp sugar
About ½ cup black fungus , soaked then cut into bit sixed pieces
About 1 cup dried lily flower tied into a knot and soaked
About 4 stalks dried bean curd, soaked then cut into bite sized pieces
About 10 dried shiitake, soaked then quartered
About ½ cup dried black moss soaked
1 can bamboo shoots, cut into bite sized pieces
1 can whole water chestnut, halved
1 can gingko nuts
About 1 cup fried tofu cut into bite sized pieces
About 3 large carrots, cut into bite sized pieces
About 1 & ½ cup Chinese peas
About 2 cups chopped Chinese cabbage
1 cup long rice soaked
3 tbsp regular or vegetarian oyster sauce
About 1 cup rice sticks

Heat the cooking oil in a large Dutch oven then add the red and white tofu and mash into a
paste with the ginger. Add the water, wine and sugar and when it starts simmering, add the
ingredients up to the fried tofu and simmer for 1 to 1 & ½ hours. Add the fresh vegetables and
oyster sauce and simmer another 15 minutes. Add the rice sticks and simmer until the rick sticks
soften then remove from the heat. Because Lo Han Jai is vegetarian and doesn’t contain a lot of
fat, I find that you can enjoy leftovers directly from the refrigerator without having to reheat
it… perfect for a workday lunch!