A traditional dish that is usually served for Chinese New Year, Buddha's Delight is a delicious vegetarian dish full of flavor and textures. It is typically served as one of several dishes at a Chinese New Year meal, but it is hearty enough to eat with some rice or completely on its own!
It's an intriguing name, no?
Very simply, Buddha's Delight, or jai (pronounced like "jye"), is a vegetarian dish known in Buddhist and Chinese cuisines and is traditionally served for the Chinese New Year holiday.
Jai will vary slightly in ingredients and taste from one Chinese family to the next, with each mum or grandma having learned how to make it from a previous generation. Sometimes it is made like a stew, sometimes it is a stir-fry. There is no one single recipe for making it, although some Chinese people will agree that there are certain ingredients that must be included in jai.
My recipe is based on and inspired by how my mum used to make it, but instead of having learned directly from her, I had to draw a lot from memory. I can remember eating her jai every Chinese New Year and can recall the ingredients she used, but I had to fumble my way through with figuring out the sauce and seasoning. I think I've figured it out, though, and am excited to share this in time for Chinese New Year!
As I mentioned, Buddha's Delight can vary slightly from different families, but there are some ingredients I remember my mum used in her jai that I definitely wanted to keep in mine:
- Dried Chinese mushrooms
- Dried bean curd
- Dried lilybuds
- Dried wood ears
- Bean thread noodles (glass noodles, bean vermicelli)
- Black moss (fat choy)
- Tofu puffs
- Napa cabbage
Other ingredients that can be used in jai and that I remember my mum having used on occasion:
- Baby corn
- Lotus root
- Bamboo shoots
- Water chestnuts
- Baby bok choy
- Other mushrooms varieties
There are probably more, but as you can see, Buddha's delight is a feast of ingredients! It is a humble yet amazing vegetarian dish that is full of flavors and textures. For this recipe, I'm sticking with the first list of core ingredients because really, those were my favorites.
Preparing the Ingredients
The Chinese mushrooms, soy bean curd, wood ears, and lily buds are all purchased dried and need time to rehydrate so they are soft again before you use them. The mushrooms will take the longest, so it is best to soak them overnight, but 3 hours is a safe minimum.
The soy bean curd sticks should be completely submerged in water for about 3 hours. The lily buds and wood ears are usually ready to use in about an hour.
Cooking Tip: This recipe uses 1 cup of the Chinese mushroom soaking water for cooking the dish, so be sure to soak the mushrooms in at least 1 ½ cups of water.
All the ingredients (except for the noodles) should be about bite-sized. So I chop the Chinese mushrooms and tofu puffs in half. The soy bean curd sticks and napa cabbage get cut into 1 ½" lengths (roughly). The wood ears are cut into bite-sized pieces.
Each lily bud gets the tough tips trimmed off and then it is tied into a knot. You don't have to tie it in a knot if you don't want to...it can be a tad fiddly to tie. But my mum used to do this to the lily buds and I only just learned that the knot helps the lily buds to not get lost in the sea of ingredients. Everything is in the details, right?
The bean thread noodles and black moss only need about 10-15 minutes in warm water. Since long noodles are considered lucky, resist temptation to cut the noodles before adding them to the pan. If they break on their own (which they will), that's fine, but don't take scissors to them! Also, most recipes will call for one small bundle of bean thread noodles, and some Buddha's delight recipes don't call for any noodles at all. But I LOVE noodles, so not only do I include them, I use two bundles in my recipe.
The black moss, also referred to fat choy (literally translates to "hair vegetable") may look a tad frightening, especially after rehydrated as it really does look like black hair! But besides fat meaning "hair", fat choy also means prosperity/wealth, so adding it to the dish is considered a "lucky" ingredient.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn't know exactly how my mum flavored her jai, so I had to sort of wing it. In keeping it vegetarian, the sauce is made up of soy sauce, dark soy sauce, vegetarian oyster sauce (use regular oyster sauce if you aren't strictly vegetarian), Chinese xiaoxing cooking wine, and some sugar.
And don't forget the reserved soaking liquid from the dried mushrooms! If you happen to forget and discard the soaking liquid by accident, it can be replaced by vegetable broth or just water.
Cooking Buddha's Delight
As I mentioned, all the ingredients should be ready to go because one you start cooking, the dish will come together really quickly!
I heat up my wok (also gifted to me from my mum years ago) over medium-high heat and add about 1 ½ tablespoons of a neutral-flavored oil. The ginger and green onions go in and cook all of 30 seconds before I throw in the Chinese mushrooms and soy bean curd.
Give that a toss and then it's time to throw in the wood ears and tofu puffs and lily buds. Give that a quick mix and pour in the sauce and 1 cup of the reserved soaking liquid.
Add the napa cabbage, mix it in with the other ingredients, then cover the wok with a lid to let everything cook for about 3-4 minutes.
Add the bean thread noodles and black moss, gently pulling the strands apart as you mix them in with the rest of the ingredients.
Do not be concerned by all the liquid at the bottom of your wok or pan because the noodles are going to soak up all that deliciousness!
And that is it!
Part of a Chinese New Year Meal
As I have already mentioned, Buddha's Delight is traditionally served on Chinese New Year along with several other dishes at a big family meal. I remember my mum spending hours preparing a big feast that included a steamed poached chicken, a whole steamed fish, a vegetable and chicken stir-fry, a plate of steamed vegetables, birds' nest soup (way back when it was okay to eat soup like that)....just to name a few.
The dishes would change slightly from year to year, but one major thing I remember is that there was so much good food that I wanted to try a bit of everything but I would end up getting SO FULL!
To celebrate Chinese New Year, my mum would also make another traditional dish, Chinese Taro Cake (Woo Tau Goh). Just like the Buddha's Delight, there are slightly different versions out there, but again, my taro cake recipe is inspired by how my mum used to make hers.
Other dishes you can make to celebrate Chinese New Year are Noodle Egg Foo Young, Chinese Poached Black Cod, BBQ Pork Chow Mein, Chinese Sticky Rice, Chicken Broccoli Stirfry, or Crispy Roast Pork Belly...there are so many options!
Since we are just a family of four, preparing a huge Chinese New Year feast as big as what my mum did isn't practical. I am, however, happy to make a couple of these traditional Chinese New Year dishes like she used to so that I can do my part to impress some Chinese food traditions upon my boys and hopefully show how these dishes were truly a labor of love.
Kung Hay Fat Choy.
Buddha's Delight (Jai)
- 2 small bundles bean thread noodles
- 10 grams black moss (fat choy)
- ¼ cup dried wood ears
- 5 medium sized dried Chinese mushrooms
- 2 dried bean curd sticks
- Handful dried lily buds
- 6-8 tofu (soy) puffs halved
- 2-3 cups chopped napa cabbage
- 3-5 slices peeled ginger
- 2 stalks green onions
- 2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil
- Sliced lotus root
- Bok choy
- Baby corn
- Snow peas
- Bamboo shoots
- Water chestnuts
Soaking Dried Ingredients:
- Soak Chinese mushrooms in about 1 ½ cups hot water for at least 3 hours, overnight is best.
- Soak dried bean curd sticks, wood ears, and lily buds in warm water for at least 3 hours.
- Soak bean thread noodles and black moss for 10-15 minutes in warm water, making sure the noodles are completely submerged.
- Remove rehydrated Chinese mushrooms from water, reserving the mushroom liquid for cooking.
- Trim tough stems off mushrooms and cut caps in half or thick slices.
- Drain wood ears and cut into bite-sized pieces.
- Drain bean curd and cut into 1 ½" lengths (roughly).
- Drain lily buds. Snip off tough tips with scissors or cut off with a knife and tie each lily bud into a knot.
- Cut napa cabbage into 1 ½" pieces (roughly).
- Cut 2 stalks green onions into 2" lengths.
- Combine Chinese cooking wine, soy sauce, vegetarian oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, sugar, and reserved mushroom soaking liquid in a bowl or measuring cup.
- Heat a large pan, wok, or pot over medium-high heat.
- Add neutral-flavored oil to the pan.
- Add sliced ginger and green onions and quickly saute for about 30 seconds.
- Add Chinese mushrooms, bean curd, and wood ears. Mix.
- Add tofu puffs and lily buds. Mix.
- Add the sauce to the pan. Mix.
- Add napa cabbage and mix. Cover the pan with a lid and cook for 4-5 minutes.
- Uncover and add drained bean thread noodles and black moss. Use two utensils to help mix the noodles thoroughly into the ingredients.
- Continue tossing and mixing until noodles are well coated in sauce and the sauce has mostly been absorbed.
- All the ingredients should be ready to go before you start cooking as everything happens very quickly.
- The dried ingredients are best found in an Asian supermarket or local market specializing in Asian foods.
- All quantities of the ingredients can be adjusted or omitted to your preference and taste.
- Regular oyster sauce can be substituted for vegetarian oyster sauce if you are not strictly vegetarian. It can also be omitted, if desired.
- Dark soy sauce is very strong in flavor and also darkens the overall color of the jai, so it is best to use it sparingly.
- Adjust the sauce ingredients according to your personal taste.
- The mushroom soaking liquid can be replaced with vegetable broth or water.
- Do not worry about all the liquid in the pan before adding the noodles; the noodles will end up soaking it up very quickly once they are added.
- Buddha's Delight is traditionally one of several dishes served for Chinese New Year, but you can enjoy it on its own or with some steamed rice.
- Store leftovers in the fridge and reheat either by steaming or in the microwave.
- Leftovers can also be frozen in zippered freezer bags with most of the air squeezed out.