China: Jai

Happy Lunar New Year! 新年快樂!

My mom made jai (齋) for dinner. Jai is more commonly known as Buddha’s delight (羅漢齋), which translates to ‘vegetarian dish/diet’. It is a dish traditionally eaten on the first day of Chinese New Year.

There are many variations but again, all ingredients are vegetarian. My mom’s version (shown above) included the following ingredients:

  • ginko nuts (白果) – symbolizes good fortune
  • napa cabbage (大白菜)
  • black moss (髮菜) – same sound as 發財 in Cantonese, meaning prosperity
  • bamboo fungus (竹笙)
  • black fungus (雲耳) – symbolizes longevity
  • black mushrooms (冬菇) – represents seizing opportunities
  • bean curd sticks (炸豆腐) – represents bringing blessings to the house
  • bean thread (粉絲) – represents longevity
  • goji berry (枸杞子)
  • dried oysters (蠔豉) – same sound as 好事 in Cantonese, meaning good things or good business

My mom also added the following ingredients to the jai for better taste:

  • fermented bean curd (南乳) – added for better flavor, saltiness
  • brown sugar in pieces (片糖) – added for sweetness

Honolulu Star Bulletin interviewed a restaurant chef/owner that explained the meaning behind jai:

“The Chinese connect the eating of meat with man’s animal nature and think of a vegetable diet as more spiritual than one including meat,” Mary Sia wrote in her “Mary Sia’s Chinese Cookbook” (University of Hawai’i Press). “It is customary that the first meal of the new year be completely vegetarian.”

Added Lee, “Jai actually is the Chinese word for principle. When you say ‘lo han jai,’ it means the 500 disciples of Buddha; so jai is really the principles of Buddha. Buddhism taught that you don’t eat any meat and you don’t slaughter any animals. It (jai) came to be the name of the dish. It’s strictly vegetarian food. The Taoist and Buddhist monks eat all forms of jai. Jai is a different form of cooking; when you say jai food, it’s vegetarian food.”

Lee said jai varies from region to region in China. Northern Chinese jai is spicy with chiles and contains wheat gluten in place of out-of-season vegetables. Southern Chinese jai is a milder stir-fry repleat with greens, such as won bok and snow peas.

Here’s also more information about jai, from Wikipedia:

Buddha’s delight, often transliterated as Luóhàn zhāi, lo han jai, or lo hon jai, is a vegetarian dish well known in Chinese and Buddhist cuisine. It is sometimes also called Luóhàn cài (simplified Chinese: 罗汉菜; traditional Chinese: 羅漢菜).

In the name luóhàn zhāi, luóhàn – short for Ā luóhàn (simplified Chinese: 阿罗汉; traditional Chinese: 阿羅漢; pinyin: Ā LuóHàn) – is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit arhat, meaning an enlightened, ascetic individual or the Buddha himself. Zhāi (simplified Chinese: 斋; traditional Chinese: 齋; pinyin: zhāi) means “vegetarian food” or “vegetarian diet.”

The dish is traditionally enjoyed by Buddhist monks who are vegetarians, but it has also grown in popularity throughout the world as a common dish available as a vegetarian option in Chinese restaurants. The dish consists of various vegetables and other vegetarian ingredients (sometimes with the addition of seafood or eggs), which are cooked in soy sauce-based liquid with other seasonings until tender. The specific ingredients used vary greatly both inside and outside Asia.

The dish is usually made with at least 10 ingredients, although more elaborate versions may comprise 18 or even 35 ingredients. If 18 ingredients are used, the dish is called Luóhàn quánzhāi (simplified: 罗汉全斋; traditional: 羅漢全齋).

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