Sunday, May 20, 2012

Buddha's Delight (Jai)

Today I made Jai, also called Buddha's Delight.  It's amazing that a dish with such a short name has such a long list of ingredients, ranging from the poisonous to the floral.  I wish I had a great backstory on why I made this dish, but the real answer is that I associated the name of this dish with 'vegetables and tofu', and told my vegetarian friends that I would make it figuring it would be easy.  But on closer inspection, I learned that this is actually a very complex dish served at Chinese New Years and celebrating longevity, prosperity, and good health and fortune, with each of those things being represented by multiple [obscure] ingredients.  It sounded so unique, though, that I forged ahead anyway.

I spent over an hour wandering aimlessly through the most Asian of all the Asian grocery stores in my area, where I was by far the most confused looking person in there, repeatedly asking for insane things like 'lily blossoms' and 'gingko nuts'.  But after hard searching, I was able to find everything I needed to make this dish, if not a bit exhausted.  Good thing this came together quickly... oh wait, it was the most involved stir-fry I've ever made.  I will state outright that this was one of the more extensive Chinese dishes I've made, but that it was also one of the most interesting.  There were flavors in here I've never had before, and they were nicely balanced - rich, bitter, floral, fragrant, crunchy, chewy, and very colorful.

I do not recommend this dish for beginners: I would rank this at 4 ice cream cones out of a maximum 5 in terms of difficulty, just because of the sheer prep work and item hunting.  But if you're feeling daring, give this a shot.  The recipe I present here is an amalgamation of multiple recipes I found online and fused into something I thought would be a fair representation of the average tastes and components of this dish, so I will not list a citation but rather tip my hat to those who have bravely attempted this before me.

I will try my best to explain some of the crazy ingredients you're about to see, hopefully complemented by the annotated picture below.  This is probably a good primer on some basic Asian ingredients anyway.

Check out this ridiculous ingredient set!
A. Soy sauce.  This is often confusingly referred to as 'light' soy sauce, not to be mistaken for 'low sodium' soy sauce, because 'dark' soy sauce contains sugar, and is thicker.  I didn't have the dark (even though it is called for in the recipe), so I used all light and extra sugar.
B. Oyster sauce.  Made from oyster bits, not for those with shellfish allergies.
C. Chinese rice wine.  I have no idea where to get good Shaoxing wine, but if you know please share!  This stuff here is basically the same as the Marsala wine you find in the grocery store by the salad dressings, the Sunny Delight of orange juice, the Cool Whip of clotted cream - it's a terrible approximation of the real thing, but it's all I know.
D. Sesame oil.  Nothing to add here.
E. Ginger.  The recipe calls for "one knuckle", which we defined as "about 1 inch long piece".
F. Napa cabbage.  Not to be confused with standard Savoy cabbage, this is longer and more delicate.
G. Water chestnuts.  Yes, you can buy these canned, but I wanted to try fresh.  To use, just cut off the top and bottom, then peel around the sides with a sharp knife.  It's nothing like normal chestnuts (and I don't think they're even related botanically), so not nearly as much of a pain in the ass to deal with.
H. Carrots.  Duh.
I. Snow peas.  These are the thin peapods, not the same as English peas or sugar snap peas, both of which are fatter.  Very common in stir-fries.
J. Gingko nuts.  NOW we're in weird territory.  These were eventually located in the refrigerated section by the tofu, and have thankfully been processed out of their shells.  Raw, they look like pistachios, but it turns out these are mildly toxic in large doses, and fairly bitter when eaten fresh out of the pack.  Relax, they're no less toxic after cooking, so I didn't compromise my endocrine system any more than you will.  Apparently the layer between the nut and shell causes allergic dermatitis, so use gloves if you get them unprocessed.  The nuts have a slightly bitter aftertaste out of the pack, which mellows after stir-frying.  They have a consistently between a semi-firm cheese and a hard-boiled egg yolk.  Bet you can't wait to try them after that description, right?  And no, I don't believe these make you smarter - that's the leaves of the plant, not the nuts.  Clearly the guy eating the poisonous nuts instead of the leave missed the boat by inches on this [almost] brain food.
K. Fried tofu.  Pretty much the same product as you would end up with at home if you took tofu, wrung it out, and went to the trouble of frying it, but much more convenient.
L. Bamboo shoots.  I usually buy the finely sliced stuff, but went for large pieces this time.  I could have gone for the raw stuff out of a sketchy looking tub at the store, but didn't feel quite that daring.
M. Lily buds.  I had no idea what this meant as I wandered the aisles, and was literally looking for dried flowers in a bag until someone pointed out that these come shredded.  They smell like tea, and taste floral and delicious.  A nice counterpoint to the gingko nuts.
N. Bean curd sheets. This was another one that took forever to find, since I didn't know what I was looking for.  Think of this product like you would pudding skin - it's the film that forms on top of the tofu whey as it's being made, which they skim off.  It's very rich, and almost tastes buttery.  A little goes a long way; we broke off 4" pieces and cut them in half to serve, but should have chopped finer.
O. Dried Shiitake mushrooms.  These are pretty common in Asian grocers.

So, you ready?  Let's have a go at...

Buddha’s Delight (Jai)
by: Me!

  • 4 dried Shiitake or Chinese black mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup dried lily buds
  • 4 dried bean curd sticks
  • 8 ounces fried tofu (store bought or homemade)
  • 8 ounces bamboo shoots
  • 6 fresh water chestnuts
  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 cup shredded Napa cabbage
  • 4 ounces snow peas
  • 1/4 cup canned gingko nuts
  • 1 knuckle of ginger, crushed
  • Cellophane noodles
  • Vegetable or peanut oil for stir-frying, as needed
  • 1/4 cup mushroom soaking liquid
  • 1.5 tbsp Shaoxing wine or Chinese rice wine
  • 1 tsp ginger, minced
  • 1 tbsp vegetarian oyster sauce
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp cornstarch

In separate bowls, soak the mushrooms, dried lily buds, and dried bean curd sticks in hot water for 20 to 30 minutes to soften.  Squeeze out any excess liquid.  Reserve the mushroom soaking liquid, straining it if necessary to remove any grit.  Remove the stems and cut the mushroom tops in half if desired.  Soak cellophane noodles just before using.

The soaked and drained bean curd is far left, lily buds far right.  Cellophane noodles are soaking in the bottom left corner.  Note the large pieces on the bamboo, bottom right.  I really liked the consistency of the bigger pieces.

Slice the bamboo shoots into large pieces.  Peel and finely chop the water chestnuts.  Peel the carrots, cut in half, and cut lengthwise into thin strips.  Shred the Napa cabbage.  String the snow peas and cut in half.  Drain the gingko nuts.  Crush the ginger.

Combine the reserved mushroom soaking liquid with the Chinese rice wine or sherry, 1 tsp ginger, oyster sauce, soy sauces, sugar, sesame oil, and cornstarch.  Set aside.

Heat the wok over medium-high to high heat.  Add 1 tablespoon oil to the heated wok.  When the oil is hot, add tofu and bean curd with a little salt and sugar, and stir fry for 1-2 minutes.  Remove, then follow same process for the gingko nuts and remove.

Stir-fry the proteins with a bit of salt and sugar, and set aside

Follow the same process for these crazy gingko nuts

Add more oil, then stir-fry the carrots.  Stir-fry for 1 minute, and add the dried mushrooms and lily buds.  Stir-fry for 1 minute, and add the water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, snow peas and ginger.

The recipe calls for adding almost everything individually and cooking in layers, to preserve the individual flavors of each component as much as possible without overcooking anything.  I chose the order strategically.

This is everything before the cabbage and noodles

Stir in the shredded cabbage and return all other cooked ingredients back to the wok, and then add noodles after cabbage has wilted slightly.

The soaked cellophane noodles.  Don't let them sit in hot water too long, or they will turn mushy.

Add the sauce and fold in, allowing to come to a boil to thicken up the cornstarch mixture

Add the sauce ingredients and bring to a boil.  Cover, turn down the heat and let the vegetables simmer for 5 minutes.  Taste and add salt or other seasonings as desired.  Serve hot.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo Justin! You even used fresh water chestnuts instead of canned. About the "lily buds", the recipe should say dried "daylily" buds with a note of warning they actually look more like soft roots.

    I've never had this dish even though I've aten all the ingredients. Seems like a very nice one monks would make in spring time because it's all veggie, tofu/bean curd taste somewhat meaty with enough oil, and monks can dig out fresh bamboo shoots to make it. No wonder it's called buddha's delight.



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