Star-Bulletin Features


By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Kwong Leong Ng, chef at Hee Hing Restaurant, stir-fries jai for the new year.

Greet the Year of the Tiger with a traditional new year's stew

By Catherine Kekoa Enomoto

Jai is a rich vegetarian stew of exotic vegetables, seeds, nuts and noodles. This traditional Chinese New Year "monk's food" offers a copious mixture of textures and hues, from greens to browns, gold and white.

James Hon Quon Lee, co-owner of Hee Hing Restaurant, and Kwong Leong Ng, executive chef of the 35-year-old establishment, share family and restaurant recipes for jai, to enhance one's health, wealth and prosperity in the Chinese New Year of the Tiger 4696, starting Jan. 28.

Their jai dishes are crunchy with water chestnuts, peanuts and fresh arrowroot; smooth with ginkgo nuts, lotus seeds and straw mushrooms; glutinous with long rice and wheat gluten; and savory with soy sauce, sesame oil and sticks of Chinese brown sugar.

Photo by George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
The jai ingredients above are used in James Lee's family recipe, in the Southern Chinese style, which incorporates oysters. The significance of the ingredients comes from Lee, co-owner of Hee Hing Restaurant, and "Bruce Cost's Asian Ingredients."

"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.

Although jai is traditionally vegetarian, the Lee family recipe contains oysters.

"A true Buddhist won't eat oysters. It's live seafood," said Lee, whose father, the late Kin Ball Lee, emigrated to Hawaii from Canton in 1940. "But in Southern China, the Chinese word for oyster is ho-see, which has the connotation of a good thing; so all Southern Chinese jai will have oysters."

Besides smoky dried oysters, jai can feature chewy bamboo shoots, lily flowers and bamboo piths. These contrast with the darker shiitake, black tree-ear fungus and hairy black moss. Leafy, green won bok and orange carrot coins add splashes of color.

The fresh ginkgo nut, at $7.50 a pound, is one of the most expensive ingredients.

"At home we use fresh ginkgo nuts, because we got a lot of time to crack each nut, but at the restaurant we have to use canned ones," said Lee, 41, the financial architect behind Hee Hing, as well as four of Sam Choy's five restaurants.

"Most of the Chinese groceries sell fresh ginkgo nuts. A couple stores sell all the New Year's jai ingredients - like Hing Mau, Shun Fat Cheong at the corner of King and Kekaulike streets, and Bo Wah. They have all the ingredients, including fresh water chestnuts and fresh arrowroot. All of that is ready for purchase."

Lee estimated that after shopping, jai preparation takes an hour and a half.

"Once you get all the ingredients together, to soak and cut everything takes one hour, and actual cooking takes another 25 minutes to half an hour. I cook jai on New Year's morning. I try to get it ready before the (two) kids head out for school. We all get together and at least have traditional jai for breakfast; then they're off and running. I usually get up about 5 o'clock and start cooking.

"My whole family - my brother and his kids, my sister and their kids - we have jai. At least we do something together for the Chinese New Year."

The Lee family version of jai follows, along with Hee Hing Restaurant takes on jai and another traditional Chinese New Year's dish, steamed chicken and ham with mustard cabbage greens.

On New Year's eve and day, the restaurant features a lion dance at 6:15 p.m. and an extravagant 10-course family menu for $19 to $23 per person - with jai, of course.

"I try to eat it for two or three days afterward," said lawyer cum restaurateur cum home chef Lee. "I love jai, it's good with hot rice."

Lee family jai (above)

6 cups water
1/2 pound Chinese brown sugar sticks
1/2 cup raw peanuts
2-ounce bundle long rice (dried mung-bean thread)
1 ounce black tree-ear fungus
1 ounce dried lily flowers
4 ounces dried mushrooms
1 ounce dried black moss
1/4 pound fried wheat gluten
1/4 pound fried tofu (see note)
1/4 pound dried bean curd sticks (foo jook)
2 tablespoons oil
3 pieces red beancurd (about 4 ounces)
6 ounces garbanzo beans
4 ounces ginkgo nuts (see note)
4 ounces dried oyster, optional
2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage (won bok)
4 ounces sliced arrowroot (see note)
4 ounces sliced water chestnuts
2 ounces snow peas
1 tablespoon salt or to taste
Boil 6 cups water, add brown sugar and set aside to dissolve.

To prepare dried ingredients: Soak the following in separate bowls of warm water for 15 minutes each: raw peanuts, long rice, black tree-ear fungus, and dried lily flowers. Then, boil raw peanuts 15 minutes; drain long rice; rinse and drain black tree-ear fungus; rinse and drain dried lily flowers, and cut off stems.

Soak dried mushrooms 12 minutes and discard stems.

Soak dried black moss in warm water 5 minutes, rinse and drain.

Boil wheat gluten in water 2 minutes; drain.

Boil fried tofu in water 1 minute; drain.

Soak bean-curd sticks in water, then cut in 3-inch lengths.

To stir-fry jai: In a wok, heat oil, add red bean curd, then stir and break up curd. Fold in peanuts, black tree ears, dried lily flowers, bean-curd sticks, garbanzo beans, ginkgo nuts and oysters, if used. Stir-fry 2 minutes.

To braise jai: Add brown-sugar liquid and bring to boil. Add long rice, black moss, gluten, tofu, Chinese cabbage, arrowroot and water chestnuts. Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, adding water if needed.

Add Chinese peas and salt to taste. Lower heat. Makes 12 one-cup servings.

Note: If prepared fried tofu is unavailable, fry tofu according to instructions in lo han jai recipe, below. Fresh water chestnuts, fresh arrowroot and fresh ginkgo nuts are available in Chinatown during Chinese New Year's.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving, without oysters: 400 calories, 17 grams total fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat, no cholesterol, 850 milligrams sodium. Per serving, with oysters: 410 calories, 17 grams total fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 900 milligrams sodium.*

Hee Hing's Buddha's delight (lo han jai)

1/4 cup black tree-ear fungus
1/4 cup dried snow fungus
3 ounces dried bean-curd stick
2 ounces dried bamboo piths
2 ounces long rice (dried mung-bean thread)
1 cup vegetable oil
8 ounces fresh tofu (bean curd), cut in 1-inch cubes
4 cups shredded won bok (Chinese cabbage)
1/2 cup sliced carrots
1/2 cup bamboo shoots
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups water
1/2 cup black mushrooms, soaked and rinsed
1/2 cup straw mushrooms
1/2 cup raw peanuts
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Salt to taste
In separate bowls of warm water, soak the following for 15 minutes each, then rinse and drain: black tree-ear fungus, dried snow fungus, dried bean-curd stick, dried bamboo piths, and long rice.

In a wok or skillet, heat vegetable oil over medium-high heat to 375 degrees. Deep-fry fresh tofu squares for 5 minutes or until golden. Remove and drain tofu on paper towels. Pour off all but 1/4 cup oil.

Reheat wok to medium heat. Add won bok, carrots and bamboo shoots; stir-fry 1 minute.

Add black tree-ear fungus, snow fungus, bean curd sticks, bamboo piths, long rice, fried tofu, soy sauce and sugar. Toss to mix well.

Add 3 cups water, black mushrooms, straw mushrooms and raw peanuts. Return to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender and flavors absorbed. Season with sesame oil and salt. Serves 6 or more.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving, with no added salt: 400 calories, 28 grams total fat, 3 grams saturated fat, no cholesterol, 560 milligrams sodium.*

Steamed chicken and ham with mustard cabbage

1/2 chicken, about 1-1/2 pounds
3 ounces Virginia ham, cut into 2-by-1/2-inch strips
3 to 4 tablespoons peanut oil
6 to 8 mustard-cabbage stems
Salt to taste, optional
1 cup water
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon salt
Sauce mixture:
1-1/2 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
Combine marinade ingredients and rub mixture over chicken.

Boil water in a large pan, place a rack in the middle and steam chicken over medium heat 18 to 20 minutes. Remove chicken.

Chop cooled chicken into 2-by-1/2-inch pieces. Arrange on a serving platter, alternating chicken and ham.

In a wok or skillet, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of the peanut oil. Add mustard cabbage and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add salt and water, and cook over medium heat 3 minutes. Remove, drain and arrange cabbage beside chicken and ham.

Combine sauce ingredients thoroughly. In a wok, heat remaining 1 to 2 tablespoons oil. Add sauce mixture and bring to a boil. Pour sauce over meat and mustard cabbage. Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6 servings without optional salt: 360 calories, 26 grams total fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 90 milligrams cholesterol, 1,000 milligrams sodium.*

Asterisk (*) after nutritional analyses in the
Body & Soul section indicates calculations by Joannie Dobbs of
Exploring New Concepts, a nutritional consulting firm.

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