Monday, January 23, 2012


Trying to learn how to cook a few of my mom's dishes is exasperating. Like most, she goes by habit. There's no recipes, no measurements, no clear directions other than "that's not enough" or "that's too much."

This year's problem: she isn't in town for Chinese New Year, and there's a certain number of rituals and traditions to adhere to, if only for nostalgia's sake. I cling to my childhood, and there's certain dishes that we have every year. Like my sister's favorite, the Buddha's Delight or "Luo Han Zhai."

"Luo Han" translates to 'arhat', and the delight lies in that the dish is vegetarian. Variations run abundant, with the most famous version having 18 different ingredients, for the 18 disciples of Buddha. Our version was plainly ad hoc, with cooking completely approximate, peppered with a few phone calls back home to figure out some minor details. That is to say, the following recipe is more a push in a certain direction than anything definitive.

Luo Han Zhai nee "Buddha's Delight"
10 to 12 dried Chinese mushrooms
a good handful or more of dried lily buds
a half handful or more of dried wood ears
3 sticks of bean curd sticks (the super foot long ones you get in Chinese herbal stores; ask for "gee juk" phonetically and prepare for odd stares)
a good amount of 'fat choy'  or 'fa cai', a seaweed that looks like black hair (again, go to the Chinese herbal stores)
a pack of tofu puffs, each puff cut in half
1 pack of fresh ginko nuts
1/2 pack of dried lotus seeds
1 can of straw mushrooms
1/3 to 1/2 can of baby corn
5 decent slices of ginger, peeled
3 to 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
a handful and a half or so of snow peas
3 bundles of cellophane noodles
1/2 a napa cabbage
4 or 5 fresh bamboo shoots

2 to 3 cubes of 'nam yee' red fermented bean curd
2 to 3 tablespoons oyster sauce (vegetarian, if you're going for the piety of it)
a pinch of sugar
a bit of soy sauce to taste

A good chunk of this dish is just prep time.  Here's a list of things to soak/re-constitute well in advance (give each an hour or two, if not more):

- Soak the Chinese mushrooms.  Afterward, cut the stalks off and slice them into a halves.
- Soak the lily buds. Afterward, tie each into knots if you can.
- Soak the wood ears. Marvel at their odd shapes.
- Break the bean curd sticks into chunks that you can fit into a bowl for soaking.  Afterward, if they're not too soft, cut them into bite sized pieces (maybe larger), or if they're too soft, fry until crispy.  (More on that below.)
- Soak the cellophane noodles.
- Soak the fat choy.  There may be alot of crud in it, so be prepared to rinse.  If they dissolve into mush, you've bought some crapola seaweed, and toss it.  If the soaking water has turned jet black, that's not a good sign either.

Afterward, blanch the following items quickly, particularly if they're canned, just to rid it of any metallic taste or packaging taste:

- the ginko nuts
- the lotus seeds
- the baby corn
- the straw mushrooms
- the fat choy.

For the bamboo shoots, take a look at how weird and fuzzy they are and imagine a panda bear half a world away fighting you to the death for one.  Then peel all the brown layers away, and cut off the root end if it looks dried out. Afterward, slice them up and give them a quick blanch. Some bamboo roots might take a lot more prep work if they've got a good woody layer on them; I lucked out with some young ones that were pretty much ready to go after peeling.

Take a small bowl, and add the fermented bean curd cubes, the oyster sauce, the soy sauce and sugar. Mix them to taste, and add a bit of water.

After all this prep, things get a bit hazy and general. I've always grown up with this dish braised, whereas others simply do a stirfry.  I tend to prefer the richness and depth of the braised version, but do what you will.

Heat up a decent sized pot with a bit of oil, then add the ginger.  Add the small bowl of sauce mixture, along with the garlic. Then add all the other ingredients except for the napa cabbage, carrots, snow peas and cellophane noodles.

If your bean curd sticks were too much of a mush after soaking, some people fry them quickly to give some crisp to them before adding them to the pot.  This will prevent them from breaking up too much during the braise. 

Add enough water to cover everything 1/3 to 1/2 way, and bring to a boil. Let everything braise for about 20 to 30 minutes, reducing the liquid most of the way (but not all of the way).

When that's almost done, stir fry the napa cabbage, carrots and snow peas separately. Add to the pot of other ingredients, and give everything a good mix. Let it braise for a few minutes, then add the cellophane noodles.  The noodles will soak up most of the braising liquid, so give it a taste before that happens and season accordingly as necessary.  Let the noodles soften, then serve. 

I'm sure a good lot of you have moms that make this dish all sorts of different ways and with different ingredients, and I've got one too. Until they start writing these things down with precise measurements, you're as stuck as I am.  Happy new year.

the clutterer Web Developer


  1. I sympathize with your "no recipe, no measurements" pain. My mom has a recipe for black bean sauce steamed ribs; she tried to teach me how to make them once, but the marinade involved a dash of this and a pinch of that, and, well, this and that added up to 12+ ingredients. One of these days she'll have to write it down for me, or I'll have to take notes over her shoulder.

    Happy year of the dragon!