Chinese New Year (CNY) aka Lunar New Year is the most important holiday in Chinese culture. On this one particular day of the year, you’ll find that Chinatown is a ghost town. Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Day and New Years Day, but not on CNY. The days leading to CNY is where you’ll notice how chaotic it is. Oranges, tangerines, pomelos are sold in bulk at the markets. Plants, decorative paper, and red envelopes are sold outside shops. On the eve of CNY, the Chinese restaurants or delis are roasting duck and pork at full capacity. I remember a year when I ran all over town to find roast pork and finally after going to about five different restaurants, found it in a neighborhood far from Chinatown.
On the eve of CNY, it is traditional for families to have dinner together. This is a large feast and the more dishes that are served the better, especially protein. It is all about abundance. With a few cooked items purchased in Chinatown, my mother spent most of the day prepping for dinner. Whole chicken, roast duck, roast pork, fish, shrimp, mushroom stir-fried with lettuce, vermicelli noodles, assorted vegetables, and bean curd soup were the dishes my family had on Wednesday evening. Gastronomy comes to mind.
On CNY, families return to the table and have “jai” or buddhist’s feast. This is a (mostly) vegetarian dish with many exotic ingredients. (Oysters and oyster sauce is sometimes in the dish). I watched as my mother cooked all eighteen ingredients into a single dish. For our large family and for this many ingredients, she cooked in batches and used a wok to stir fry the dish.
She started out by stir frying the white carrot (bok law bok) in oil.
Next she threw in the dry bamboo (jook sloon).
She added snow peas and soya bean sprouts.
Next came the black fungus or wooden ear (mook gnee).
After removing this first batch. Mom tossed in some oil and vermicelli noodles.
Earlier she had washed, soaked, and cooked up a batch of wet ingredients and tossed half of it into the noodles. Those ingredients consisted of black mushrooms, fat choy (means good luck), ginkgo nut (bok gaw), bean curd (foo juk), oysters (hoe see), daylily buds or golden needles (gum jum), dried red plum (hung joe), and bamboo fungus (juk sung).
At this point, she added half of the first batch of previously stir-fried veggies and then tossed the last ingredients which were chestnuts (see goo), fried tofu, and olives (lom gok).
To flavor the dish, she added oyster sauce.
She dished this out and finished off the second batch. The jai was served on traditional chinese decorated platters.
Each person gets a bowl of rice and chopsticks and eating family style, we pick at the plates of jai. To be honest, I can’t say I love jai. But at the same time, my mother makes the best jai around. I do however love the tradition and I hope this blog helps to keep them alive.