Today I want to share with you our secret family recipe of our family, the Buddha’s delight (a.k.a Lo Han Jai, Loh Han Cai, Loh Han Chai, 罗汉斋). My mother in law follows this recipe to cook during every Chinese New Year for the past six decades. She is now in her eighties, and this is the time that we will take over to prepare it for this coming lunar new year.
This recipe drills more in-depth into the culinary tradition of Chinese food than the typically known dishes to the west like Wonton, Mapo tofu, and Chinese fried rice. Some ethnic ingredients may be foreign to the non-Chinese. Head to the Chinatown for the list of the ingredients if you are living outside of Asia.
A brief explanation of the Buddha’s delight or Lo Han Jai
Buddha’s delight is a delightful vegetarian dish savor by everyone during the Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year.)
Lo Han Jai 罗汉斋 is another name for Budda’s delight. (Jai, or sometimes spells as Zhai, literally means a vegetarian meal for the Buddhist). ‘Lo Han’ is the Chinese name for the eighteen Arhats in Buddhism, which are the saints equivalent to the apostles of Christianity. Lo Han Jai means the vegetarian dish eaten by the saints.
There are eighteen ingredients in the authentic Buddha’s delight to represent eighteen Arhats, (as opposed to twelve apostles).
There are many variations sprout from the authentic recipe. Many people find that it is too tedious to get all the ingredients, and therefore omit some components without sacrificing the flavor.
The critical ingredients for preparing the Buddha’s delight
Before we start, I would like to explain briefly some of the less crucial ingredients for anyone who is unfamiliar with them.
1. Shiitake mushroom
Shiitake mushroom is used in various Chinese cuisines. The dehydrated version is far more popular than the raw type, which has a strong refreshing aroma.
Some higher grade dry Shiitake mushroom is called 花菇, literally means ‘flower mushroom, because there is a characteristic cracking pattern on the surface of the cap. They have a thick mushroom cap with a very strong fragrant. That is why it is also termed as 香菇 which means ‘fragrance mushroom.’
You need to rehydrate the dry mushroom for a few hours, and overnight for the larger and thicker one before cooking.
2. Dry lily buds
Dry lily buds 金针 are from the lilies, with a faint earthy and sweetish taste, with a bit of tartness.
The dry form has a sharp tip and golden in color. Therefore it is also described as ‘golden needles.’
It is a favorite ingredient to cook Buddha’s delights and the Szechuan hot and sour soup. The word golden needles also symbolize wealth (gold) which is regularly on the menu during the lunar new year.
You need to rehydrate the dried lily buds before cooking just like the dry Shiitake mushroom. The rehydrating liquid has plenty of flavors and can be used as stock to prepare the Buddha’s delight or any other dishes.
The shape of Enoki mushroom has some similarity to dry lily flower, and is called 金针菇, which means ‘golden needle mushroom.’ However, they are entirely different from dry lily flowers.
Our family recipe uses the regular round cabbage, as opposed to the Napa cabbage mentioned in some recipes. The cabbage should be cut into large pieces as they will shrink after braising.
The cabbage may need about ten minutes of braising until they become soft. Soft cabbage is more flavorful after absorbing more braising liquid.
4. Bean curd sheet and sticks 腐竹
There are many names in English for the same item: tofu skin, yuba, bean curd skin, bean curd sheet, or bean curd robes.
It is a product made of soybean. When the soybean is boiled in a shallow pan, a film of soy will coagulate on the surface. The films are removed and dry to become a bean curd sheet.
The sheets can be folded into robes during production. The one that remains as a thin sheet works better in this recipe since it is easier to deep-fry evenly (and become more crispy) than the one that is in the form of a robe.
The result is better with the bean curd sheets which is a crisp and thin, The stick form is thicker and folded, causing it harder to become crackle and shatter when snapped. If you tried to deep-fry it longer to get that shattering texture, the whole bean curd will over fried and turn into dark brown. It will leave a bitter taste to the braised vegetables.
5. Cellophane or mung bean vermicelli 粉絲
Mung bean vermicelli is usually made with mung bean or potatoes starch. They are called cellophane noodles or glass noodles because they resemble cellphone (partially transparent) after cooking.
It is not the same as rice vermicelli 米粉/米线 as rice vermicelli is white and not translucent.
Watch this video (below the instruction of the recipe)
A picture worth a thousand words, a video worth a thousand images.
This video will show you how to prepare the Buddha’s Delight. (7.48 minutes). It is located below the Instruction, above the nutrition value in the recipe below.
(Note: If you encounter any audio / visual problem of viewing this video, you can view it from YouTube by clicking this link, which will open in a new tab)
6. Fat choy (black moss) 发菜
Black moss (fatt choy) is a kind of fungi with the appearance resemble human hair after drying. It is prevalent in various lunar new year cuisine due to the phonetic approximation to ‘Fatt Choy’ in Chinese which carries the meaning of making plenty of money.
Fatt Choy does not include in the day to day cooking as it is quite expensive.
7. Wood ear fungus 木耳
Wood ear fungus is a kind of edible fungus usually sold in the dried form.
It swells up to more than double of its original size after fully hydrated. It is a favorite ingredient for Buddha’s Delight, hot and sour soup and a variety of Chinese dishes due to its crunchy texture.
8. Bean curd preserved 腐乳
Fermented bean curd is another English name of the same item, which is a Chinese condiment consisting mainly of soybeans, salt, rice wine.
There are two types of fermented bean curd: the white and the red one.
White fermented bean curd is the type we used in the recipe. We prefer the flavor of the white one for its aroma and color. It will not affect the color of other vegetables to make them look unappetizing.
The other type is the red preserved bean curd 南乳/红腐乳. I have seen some Buddha’s delight recipe use the red preserved bean curd. The flavor is stronger than the white counterpart, and you may need to cut down the amount as compared to the white one.
11. Bamboo shoots 竹笋
The last on this exotic list of ingredients (but I think most of the Chinese are familiar with them) is bamboo shoots.
You can get it at the chiller section of the Asian grocery shop, and some are in the can. Just remove the shoots from the brine and cut it into slices.
Variation and substitution
The type of ingredients can be changed and substitute if you are not preparing the authentic Buddha’s delights with eighteen items. There is hardly any ordinary Chinese household willing to make Buddha’s delight by using all the ingredients as it is too tedious.
Below is the guideline to select the ingredients to prepare Buddha’s delight.
- Key ingredients are dry shiitake mushroom, wood ear fungus, cabbage, mung bean noodles, bean curd sheet, and the white fermented bean curd. Do not omit any.
- The aromatic ingredients are dry Shiitake mushrooms and dry lily flowers. The dry Shiitake mushroom is more fragrant than the raw one. You can omit dry lily flowers if unavailable. It will not affect the final result too much.
- The crunchy vegetables are bamboo shoots and wood ear fungus, which give a crunchy mouthfeel. Use the wood ear fungus and omit the bamboo shoots if you want to keep it simple.
- The silky vegetables are the mung bean vermicelli and the black moss. It can be challenging to get black moss outside of Asia. Omit it if it is unavailable.
Fermented bean curd is irreplaceable, just like you can’t prepare spaghetti agleo e oleo without garlic. The flavor of the whole dish entirely depends on the fermented bean curd, plus some sugar.
Choose the best fermented bean curd you can get. You can choose either the white or red version or mix both depends on your preference. Add more fermented bean curd if you want a stronger and saltier flavor. It is our secret recipe that NEVER adds any ‘Chinese’ seasoning like soy sauce, oyster sauce, and even salt.
Lotus seeds, gingko nuts, arrows shoots are some other ingredients for Buddha’s delights. Feel free to make your list of vegetables based on what is available.
The Buddha’s Delight Recipe
- Tie a knot for each dried lily flowers, for better presentation.
- Soak the dry ingredients until they turn soft and fully hydrated.
- Cut the bean curd sheet into smaller pieces. Deep-fried briefly (about 15-20 seconds), remove and drain.
- Cut the carrots and bamboo shoots into thin slices.
- Cut the soaked wood ear fungus into the size similar to the carrots.
- Remove the stem of the Shiitake mushrooms. Cut into two for the smaller one, and slice into three or four for the bigger one.
- Keep the water after soaking the mushrooms. Use it as part of the Braised liquid since it is full of flavor.
- Cut the cabbage into large pieces.
- Ladle two tablespoons of vegetable oil into the wok. Stir fry the cabbage until it starts to turn soft.
- Add the Shiitake mushroom, lily flowers, wood ear fungus, black moss, carrots, the fermented bean curd, sugar, the mushroom water, and some additional water. Braise for two minutes.
- Break the deep-fried bean curd into smaller pieces. Lay on top of the other ingredients.
- Add the mung bean vermicelli on top of the bean curd pieces. Braise with the lid on for five minutes or until the bean curd pieces are soft. Add some water if necessary.
- Add the bamboo shoots, button mushrooms, and baby sweet corns.
- Braise until the vegetables are soft, and the sauce thickens. Serve.
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 392 Total Fat: 9g Saturated Fat: 1g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 7g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 2622mg Carbohydrates: 66g Fiber: 9g Sugar: 25g Protein: 18g