THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Kung Hee Fat Choy

columnist-logo_ryantatsumoto_FINALNow that Lunar New Year has come and gone (it was two 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. That wasn’t always the case for yours truly, however.

Romancin’ the Future Mrs.
Because the Tatsumoto Clan celebrates New Year’s like most other Japanese American families on Jan. 1, by the time the Lunar New Year rolls around in February, I’m well out of that festive holiday spirit and simply looking for that next three-day weekend.

Thus, when most Chinese restaurants are offering jai, I usually overlook this traditional vegetarian “stew.” However, during graduate school while I was courting the future 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, I turned to that reliable culinary Bible … the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin cookbook series. So after writing down the full ingredient list, I headed to the nearest Chinese mom-n-pop store in the Sunset District in San Francisco 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. Plus, black fungus is also known as pepeau in the 50th, and is frequently harvested fresh in the hiking trails in Nu‘uanu 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 and 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, asking 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.

photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Cookin’ Jai
Because of my hesitancy to even purchase the bottle of fermented red 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 while the Honpa Hongwanji cookbook said to fry it for 30 seconds, 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 ginkgo nuts to baby corn, fresh carrots (cut decoratively like flowers mimicking jai from these Chinese delis), 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 in 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. However, 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 five pieces fermented, preserved red tofu
About five pieces fermented, preserved white tofu
One large piece of peeled fresh ginger
Five cups of water
2 tbsp xiaoshin wine or dark sherry
1 tbsp sugar
About 1/2 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 1/2 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 1/2 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 one to one and a half 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!

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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