Kathy Chin Leong
For the Love of Jai
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
Around this time of year when the air turns crisp, evening temperatures plummet, and the lunar calendar flips to a new Zodiac year, I instinctively know it’s time to prepare for the biggest Asian holiday of them all – Chinese New Year.
In the Bay Area, folks are flocking to Ranch 99 markets to buy oranges, candies, and flowers as gifts. They are displaying fortuitous proverbs (in gold lettering on red paper) on their walls.
The commercial sector is getting into the act as well. Banks offer complimentary red envelopes to customers so they can hand out “lai see” to their children. Every year, Starbucks issues Zodiac animal gift cards, and so in 2022, the Year of the Tiger, you’ll see a small tiger on this collectible plastic card, which, by the way, is extremely difficult to acquire because availability is limited.
New Year’s Eve is Monday, January 31, the day families will unite for a meal. Special foods are consumed, each entrée symbolizing wealth, health, success, or prosperity for the upcoming year.
My favorite New Year’s dish? Jai! For the uninitiated, jai is also known as “Buddha’s delight.” The savory vegetarian bowl of joy is comprised of nearly a dozen ingredients, with symbolism behind each one, but you can add or subtract as you wish.
Truly, it is a home-style entree that grows on you. I ate it as a kid, my mom ate it as a kid, and her mom ate it as a kid. I am the only one in my immediate family that craves it. Everyone else either feels neutral or finds the fermented flavors of jai too nasty for words. I understand.
First of all, jai is a complex dish with unusual textures and a distinct aroma. This hodgepodge includes rice noodles, Napa cabbage, shitake mushrooms, snow peas, bamboo shoots, fried tofu, and carrots. I’m sure you have heard of all these ingredients.
However, these next essential elements are the bits that give jai its unique flavor, and knowing their names may make you feel hesitant to try: black moss, wood ear fungus, fermented spicy bean curd, golden lily buds.
Acquiring these ingredients is like going on a scavenger hunt. They are not easily found, but tucked into dark shelves throughout the Chinese supermarkets. Some things like the spicy bean curd come in glass jars, where chunks of whitish bean curd float in red liquid, not a pretty sight.
The black moss is dried and seems invisible to the naked eye, but after scanning the aisles I managed to locate it near the dried shitake mushrooms. The packaged moss is not cheap as a few ounces costs about $10, and it resembles a wad of human hair. In Chinese this is called “fat choy,” which literally means “good fortune.”
After gathering the goods, you cart everything home and soak all the dried ingredients in water, slice the fresh vegetables and canned bamboo shoots, and when the time is right, you heat and douse the wok with oil. Heavenly fragrances are released when you toss in slices of golden ginger and blend in the red bean curd, mixing rapidly with wooden chopsticks.
Recently I spent five hours making batches upon batches of jai. It was exhausting standing in front of the stove all day long, but the annual dish is worth the sweat. You cannot order this at a restaurant.
The idea of jai is that you make a lot and share it with friends and family. As I sounded the jai trumpet call throughout the land, people made the pilgrimage to my house from near and far. The neighbor across the street arrived the same night to fetch a jar, telling me that the concoction reminded her of her childhood. A dear friend from Santa Clara couldn’t wait to try my take on this old favorite.
My sister-in-law drove over the next day from Fremont to make sure she would get her portion. My sister soon received several batches. My 82-year-old mother could not get enough of it, insisting, “We have to make this again!”
Well, Mom and I will be making it again this week, but this time the process should be smoother sailing since I can race down the supermarket aisles and lap up all the ingredients. I realize I can prepare it more efficiently by pre-soaking the dry foods the night before. To me, jai memories are always happy ones. When you can cook it, share it, and eat it with the ones you love, that is what makes Chinese New Year worth celebrating and precisely what the holiday is all about.