Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Prepping New Year’s Jai, Part I

This Thursday marks the lunar new year, which is a big celebration among the Chinese, Vietnamese and a few other Asian communities. (Happy new year, you rats!) It was a big celebration growing up in our family, with relatives coming over for a big feast on New Year’s eve and a whole bunch of traditions too numerous to remember.

Since I’ve been living on my own and away from my family in Hawaii, I’ve had very low-key Chinese New Years. But occasionally, I’ll put in the effort to make jai, which is the traditional Buddhist monks’ dish served on new year’s day. It’s a vegetarian dish, which is why the monks are so good at making it since they don’t eat meat. The belief is that it’s served on new year’s day because:

1) You’re not allowed to have sharp instruments around on new year’s day because you don’t want to accidentally cut yourself and spill blood on a joyous occasion. So that’s why you don’t eat meat on this day because you can’t kill any animals.

2) After nights of feasting leading up to new year’s day, you want to start the new year by cleansing your body of what you’ve ate in the last few days. It’s the ancient master cleanse.

Jai is made up of a variety of ingredients that are mostly dried herbs and vegetables, which is why it has a distinct herbal almost medicinal taste. It’s an acquired taste. My mom always used quality ingredients and dressed it up with other masking agents, so I always loved her jai. When you order jai at a Chinese restaurant for new year’s, they’ll often just stir-fry some vegetables together and call it jai. But the best jai has some important ingredients that symbolize certain things.

Jai is actually easy to make because you’re just stewing the various ingredients in a big pot. But it can also be quite labor intensive because you have to prep and soak a lot of the ingredients before the actual cooking. I’m going to share my recipe for making jai for all of you away from home who always had your mom make it for you. But I thought I’d start by going over the ingredients.

Jai can be a personal thing, so these ingredients are primarily the ones I like or tolerate for its symbolism. When possible, I’ve also included a photo of the packaging so you’ll know how to identify it at your Chinese grocery store. (A lot of the dried ingredients can be purchased a couple of weeks before the new year.) Again, you can use what you recall from your family.

Water chestnuts (mah tai), represents unity. This is a seasonal ingredient that reflects the moving from winter to the first signs of spring. Since it’s available fresh at the markets around this time, I try to buy it fresh and then peel off the dark skin to reveal the white flesh of the water chestnuts. Then I just add them to the pot. If you can’t find the fresh versions, you can just buy the already peeled ones in the can. Since I buy them fresh, I usually shop for this on the day I make my jai.

Black moss (fat choy), represents wealth and prosperity. This is the most unappetizing thing in jai, and many people have an aversion to it because they think it looks like hair. It’s dried moss and the Chinese word for them sounds like “prosperity,” which is why I add it to my jai because I want to make sure I get rich in the new year. Soak for five minutes in warm water, rinse and drain. (When you buy it at the store, it’s in a black square almost like a Brillo pad.)

Tree ear fungus (ha mok yi), also known as black fungus or wood ear fungus, represents longevity. This grows on the side of the tree and is dried. It can be a bit crunchy. Soak for 15 minutes, then pick through them to remove any tough parts or any parts you probably wouldn’t want to eat.

Golden lily buds (gum jun), represents wealth. This dried part of the lily plant has a really strong herbal taste, so I typically don’t add a lot of this into my jai. Its Chinese name has the word “gold” in it so that’s why it represents money. It’s long and stringy, and it’s sometimes sold with each one tied into a knot to represent that your money won’t slip away from you. Soak for 15 minutes before adding to the pot.

Long rice or mung bean thread (fun see), represents long life. A lot of kids like to eat this ingredient because it’s like noodles. Since it represents long life, you don’t want to cut it when you add it to your jai because you don’t want to shorten your life. Soak for 15 minutes and add at the very last minute to your jai because it can get soggy easily.

Dried oysters (ho see), represents good luck. OK, I know I said jai is a vegetarian dish so you’re probably wondering what these dried oysters are doing here? I’m not really sure, other than the Chinese words sound like luck and we Chinese try to get our luck any way we can. So it’s a popular item in jai (and expensive, I found them for $15.99 a pound in Chinatown). Soak in warm water for 15 minutes to rehydrate and to also let any sand wash away. (Note: even though this is dried, there is still some moisture to them so you want to make sure you store it properly like a refrigerator or a dry, cool pantry. If you leave it in a plastic bag, the moisture can create mold.) Since it can spoil, I usually buy this the day I make my jai.

Bean curd sticks (foo jook), represents blessings for the home. This is one of my favorite ingredients. It’s basically dried soy bean and has a comforting mild taste to it. I even put it in my jook (Chinese rice porridge). This takes the longest to soak, about 60 minutes until the hard dried texture is rehydrated to become light and cream colored. Add near the end of cooking your jai because they break easily. They’re sold in really long sticks in the package, but I feel these are OK to break into more bite-size pieces since they don’t represent longevity. (I break mines to about 5-inch sticks.)

Shiitake mushrooms (dong gu), represents spring. Most Chinese cooks will use dried shiitake mushrooms, which can be quite expensive. They’re also a lot of work because you have to rehydrate them before adding to your jai. Luckily, in the Bay Area I can get fresh shiitake mushrooms all year. So I just use the fresh versions because it’s just easier.

Fried tofu (chow dofu), represents blessings for the home. You buy these in the refrigerated section. They’re sometimes sold loose or in packages. Place in boiling water for 1 minute and then drain. (My mom says this is to get rid of any greasy taste since this was fried.) Let it cool and use your hand to squeeze out any excess water (be careful not to scald yourself from the hot water). I typically buy this a few days or the day when I make my jai and store it in the refrigerator.
Peanuts (fah sun), represents birth. Not too many people are used to peanuts in jai. They’re more used to the ginko nuts. But I don’t like the ginko nuts so I typically just use peanuts. Make sure you buy the white, non-roasted peanuts. When you cook this for a long time in your jai, it’ll soften and be really a nice treat with your jai.

Napa cabbage (won bok), represents spring. The slight green color of the Napa cabbage indicates the coming of spring. You buy this fresh and you can blanch it before adding to your jai if you want to make sure you retain the green color. This is also added near the end because you don’t want it to wilt too much.

So these are the basic ingredients I use in my jai. Like I said, there are other ingredients you can add. I’ve seen people add sugar snap peas or carrots for color and crunch. But I don’t go crazy with the vegetables because then it just becomes a vegetable stir-fry.

The base flavor of the jai, I believe, is the preserved bean curd that’s sold in jars. My mom likes to use the red bean curd and regular bean curd as the base flavor for her jai. So I do the same too. I keep these jars in my refrigerator after I’ve opened them.

Come back tomorrow for the actual recipe when I put all these ingredients together for the new year.

1 comment:

Phillip Ginn said...

I'm glad I found this post. My aunt makes wonderful jai, but she can't tell me how she makes it because "she just does it."