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Chinese New Year recipe: Buddha’s Delight (Lo Hon Zai)

April 6, 2016

Buddha’s delight, or 羅漢齋 (lo hon zai), is always on the table at every Chinese New Year gathering in my family. It’s basically a vegetarian stew with lots of different ingredients, both fresh and dried. It’s actually not exclusively served during the new year, but simpler versions of the dish can be found in Chinese restaurants. As you might guess from its name, the stew has Buddhist origins, and is often eaten on the first day of the new year as it’s a tradition to follow Buddhist practice at the beginning of the year. Every family has a different recipe with a mixture of ingredients in it, and it’s easily adaptable to whatever vegetables you can get your hands on. For the Chinese New Year version, it’s usually a bit more luxurious, with ingredients often harbouring some auspicious significance in their names, and some fresh vegetables for colour. All of the dried or specialty Chinese ingredients shouldn’t be hard to find in your average Chinese supermarket, and usually can be kept in the pantry for awhile.

This recipe requires soaking overnight, and can be cooked in advance and reheated on the day, so do allow for some extra time. Quantities of each ingredient are approximate, so feel free to swap in more of what you like and omit ones you don’t.

Buddha’s delight

  • 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 2 long bean curd sticks
  • A handful of dried lily buds
  • 100g cooked lotus seeds
  • 100g dried vermicelli
  • 2-3 wood ear fungus, depending on size
  • 400g lotus root, sliced into 1cm-thick discs and then halved again
  • 50g fried tofu puffs, halved
  • 1 bamboo shoot (from can), sliced
  • Water chestnuts (you can find them fresh or canned – fresh is better, but canned is way more convenient and easier to find), peeled and halved
  • Thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced into 1cm-thick coins
  • 3 tbps red fermented beancurd, mashed

I also add some fresh vegetables, but it’s up to you in terms of how much you want to add of each ingredient:

  • Chinese leaf
  • Snow peas
  • Baby corn
  • Carrots

Soaking the ingredients

First, soak the dried ingredients. Place all the dried ingredients in separate bowls. Soak the shiitake mushrooms for at least 5 hours, ideally overnight, in cold water. Soak the wood ear fungus for 1-2 hours in water, turning them every now and then so that every part is submerged (they will grow massively in size). Snap the bean curd sticks in half if they won’t fit in a bowl, and make sure they’re submerged in water for at least 1 hour (I use a roasting tray for this). Soak the dried lily buds in a separate bowl for 1 hour in room-temperature water, until pliable. The dried vermicelli should be soaked in a bowl for 30 min-1 hour in cold water.

Preparing the soaked ingredients

Gently squeeze out the water from the rehydrated mushrooms and cut off the stems. Keep the mushroom soaking liquid and pass through a sieve to remove the grit. You will need about 500ml of the soaking liquid for this recipe; you can keep the remaining liquid to use in place of chicken or vegetable stock. Wash the mushrooms and cut in half.

Drain the wood ear fungus, cut off the knobbly bit in the middle and cut into 2-3cm pieces.

Drain the bean curd sticks and cut them into 2-3cm lengths.

Drain the lily buds and cut off the knobbly bit at the stem, then tie them in a knot (this keeps them from disintegrating in the stew, but you can skip this step if you don’t mind the presentation).

To cook the Buddha’s delight

Heat 1 tbps of oil in a large casserole or dutch oven and toss in the shiitake mushrooms. Cook with a pinch of salt until the mushrooms take on some colour. Set aside. Cook the bean curd sticks, lotus seeds, lotus root, lily buds, and fried tofu puffs separately, adding oil if necessary, and set aside each ingredient.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the pot, and when that’s hot, stir-fry the ginger slices until aromatic. Mash the red fermented beancurd to a paste and add it to the ginger, moving it with your spatula until it’s fragrant.

Return all of the above cooked ingredients to the pot, add in a little of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid and a pinch of sugar. Simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft.

Now add the remaining ingredients, including the fresh vegetables, and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring regularly so that the vermicelli soaks up the sauce and there’s little liquid remaining. Adjust the seasoning with salt and sugar. Serve hot, with rice.

(This makes a whopping amount of stew – it will keep for several days in the fridge!)

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