Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lee Family Jai - a weekend recipe

January 26 is the first day of the Chinese New Year and it is a time of rebirth, new beginnings, sharing and celebrating with family. My accountant, Shu Chen was fairly bubbling as she prepared for the fifteen-day celebration. She is a vegetarian, maybe because Chinese people connect the eating of meat with man’s animal nature. Because of this belief, it is traditional that the first meal of the Chinese New Year is the vegetarian dish jai.

Jai is much more than a traditional dish; it is a state of mind. James Lee, co-owner of Hee-Hing Restaurant in Honolulu describes it thusly:

"Jai actually is the Chinese word for principle. When you say 'lo han jai,' it means the five-hundred disciples of Buddha; so jai is really the principles of Buddha. Buddhism taught that you do not eat any meat and you do not slaughter any animals. It (jai) came to be the name of the dish and it is a strictly vegetarian food. The Taoist and Buddhist monks eat all forms of jai. Jai is a different form of cooking; when you say jai food, it is vegetarian food."

The Lee’s waver a bit from a true jai recipe because it includes oysters, an ingredient to which I can relate. Here is a jai recipe from Lee’s family:

Lee Family jai – a recipe

6 cups water
½ pound Chinese brown sugar sticks
½ cup raw peanuts
2-ounce bundle long rice (dried mung-bean thread)
1 ounce black tree-ear fungus
1 ounce dried lily flowers
4 ounces dried mushrooms
1 ounce dried black moss
¼ pound fried wheat gluten
¼ pound fried tofu
¼ pound dried bean curd sticks (foo jook)
2 tablespoons oil
3 pieces red bean curd (about 4 ounces)
6 ounces garbanzo beans
4 ounces ginkgo nuts
4 ounces dried oyster, optional
2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage (won bok)
4 ounces sliced arrowroot (see note)
4 ounces sliced water chestnuts
2 ounces snow peas
1 tablespoon salt or to taste

Boil 6 cups water, add brown sugar and set aside to dissolve. To prepare dried ingredients: Soak the following in separate bowls of warm water for 15 minutes each: raw peanuts, long rice, black tree-ear fungus, and dried lily flowers. Then, boil raw peanuts 15 minutes; drain long rice; rinse and drain black tree-ear fungus; rinse and drain dried lily flowers, and cut off stems.

Soak dried mushrooms 12 minutes and discard stems. Soak dried black moss in warm water 5 minutes, rinse and drain. Boil wheat gluten in water 2 minutes; drain. Boil fried tofu in water 1 minute; drain. Soak bean-curd sticks in water, then cut in 3-inch lengths.

To stir-fry jai: In a wok, heat oil, add red bean curd, then stir and break up curd. Fold in peanuts, black tree ears, dried lily flowers, bean-curd sticks, garbanzo beans, ginkgo nuts and oysters, if used. Stir-fry 2 minutes. To braise jai: Add brown-sugar liquid and bring to boil. Add long rice, black moss, gluten, tofu, Chinese cabbage, arrowroot and water chestnuts. Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, adding water if needed.

Add Chinese peas and salt to taste. Lower heat. Makes 12 one-cup servings.

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