KitchenTigress: September 2010

Buddha's Delight (Chap Chai)

It was my mother's birthday a few days ago. To commemorate her, I made a big pot of Buddha's delight (罗汉斋) or, if you prefer the less elegant name, chap chai (什菜). It was a dish she always made for the first breakfast of the Chinese New Year.

Since Mum passed away, my eldest brother has taken over the duty of feeding some 20 people on CNY morning. And it has to be vegetarian, as it always was when Mum was still around.

Whilst everyone else is still snoozing, Big Brother is up at 7 am making chap chai, vegetarian bee hoon, stir fried kai lan (Chinese broccoli), and cheng tng (清汤).

I wish I could do CNY breakfast but it's a great honour reserved for the first-born male heir of the clan. The girls and younger ones don't have such a privilege – SOB! They have to pay their respects to the first-born son – a slap on the back plus "Happy New Year!" – then sit down to a home cooked breakfast. Oh, sob sob sob!

My brother's chap chai is the low-fat version. Like a lot of people, he thinks fat is evil. But cabbage without enough fat is NASTY.

You don't want to see a layer of oil floating on the surface but if you don't see any oil at all, you might as well just boil the cabbage. What I like to see is a few globules which, to me, represents the perfect balance – not too much, and not too little.

Every year during the breakfast gathering at my brother's place, I feel like crying, "What have you done to Mum's chap chai?!" But of course, I keep my big mouth shut. He might say, "Fine! You're so smart, we'll go to your place for Chinese New Year breakfast!" Oh no, no no no no no.

I can't make breakfast for 20 people! The best I can do is jot down how Mum made chap chai:

🍄 Cabbage – use flat ones from Malaysia, not Indonesia. And not the round ones from China either.

🍄 Oil – not too much, and not too little.

🍄 Dried mushrooms – use lots, the best possible from Japan, stir-fried till fragrant.

🍄 Lily buds – knotted tightly and stir-fried separately so that they absorb some oil and light soya sauce.

🍄 Sweet beancurd skin – burns easily. Use low heat when deep-frying.

🍄 Hair moss (发菜) – a couple of small clumps for good luck.

🍄 Cooking time – braise cabbage till soft but not mushy.

Quite easy, isn't it? Seems like nothing to it at all but somehow, Mom's version was really good. It was everyone's delight.

(Recipe for 8 persons)

35 g Chinese dried mushrooms (10 pieces)
35 g dried lily buds (a small bunch)
50 g glass noodles (冬粉/粉丝), soak till just hydrated
7 pieces sweet beancurd skin
each cut into 4 pieces, deep-fry in warm oil till brown
3 tbsp vegetable oil
80 ml light soya sauce (1/3 cup)
500 g cabbage, washed and cut chunky
2 small clumps hair moss (发菜), optional, soaked till soft

1. Soak mushrooms in water till soft, about 30 minutes. Drain and squeeze dry, reserving liquid. Cut bite size.

2. Soak lily buds till soft, 30-45 minutes. Drain and discard liquid. Rinse thoroughly and squeeze dry. Trim and discard hard ends. Tie each piece into a knot, tightly (or they'll loosen when tossed around). Stir-fry over high heat with ½ tbsp vegetable oil and 2 tsp of the light soya sauce. Set aside.

3. Stir-fry mushrooms till fragrant with remaining oil over high heat. Add cabbage and stir-fry till wilted and wok is hot again. Add remaining light soya sauce. Stir till absorbed. Add lily buds, sweet (or savory) beancurd skin, and liquid drained from mushrooms. Top up with water to almost cover everything. Stir to mix well. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer gently till cabbage is soft but not mushy, about 45 minutes, stirring and topping up with more water mid-way if necessary.

4. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Add hair moss, if using, and glass noodles. Add more water if necessary – glass noodles absorb a lot of liquid – so that it's not too dry. Stir through. Taste again and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve piping hot with rice or porridge. Reheated leftovers are really good too.