Lo Han Chai – also known as luohan zhai or, more poetically, Buddha’s Delight – is a dish that my family frequently enjoys whenever we go out for lunch at one Chinese restaurant or another. While we enjoy it invariably as a side to a meaty main like three-cups chicken or char siu (asado) pork, vegetarians can actually order it as a main in its own right.
As its name suggests, it was originally prepared for religious celebrations within Buddhist monasteries and lay communities. It is most commonly eaten on the eve and the first day of the Chinese Lunar Year as a way of purifying the body and preparing the self to receive the blessings of the new year.
In its most basic form, it is a selection of various fresh and preserved vegetables stir-fried then braised in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar; indeed, it is easy to surmise that classic chop suey takes much of its substance and technique from this dish. Lo han chai can be made with any number of vegetables, but the traditional mix includes Savoy cabbage (Chinese cabbage / wombok), cubes of deep-fried tofu, bamboo shoots, wood-ear fungi (tengang daga), carrots, and black mushrooms – either the ovoid straw mushrooms or the meatier-tasting shiitake. Nevertheless, the only thing that probably limits the home cook is one’s imagination and the availability of produce at one’s greengrocer’s.
Truth be told, the recipe for lo han chai varies from cook to cook. Strict vegetarian households will obviously not choose to use meat broths or oyster sauce. More omnivorous folks will gladly welcome the addition of either or both to add an extra dimension of flavour to the dish; there are even those who choose to throw in prawns or scallops to make the dish more interesting. Some, like myself, swap the Savoy cabbage for fresh, local greens such as pechay (a Filipino vegetable whose closest point of comparison would have to be Swiss chard) which has a sweet, mild flavour, and a crunchy texture. Some chuck the tofu in fresh, while I prefer to use the restaurant method of deep-frying the tofu first to firm up the texture. And there are those who use stinky tofu to enhance the dish; honestly, you have to draw the line somewhere and my line gets drawn here. (Stinky tofu in my lo han chai?! [Shudders])
My spin on the dish is quite easy to do and shows off the fresh flavours and textures of the different vegetables I used. I should warn you at this point, however, that cooking lo han chai at home is fairly labour-intensive: you have all that chopping and dicing to do on top of the stir-frying and braising. (Believe me, a moment’s inattention led to a nasty, self-inflicted cut when I first cooked this!) But believe me when I say the effort is most definitely worth it: even hardened non-veg eaters and picky kids will enjoy it. 😀
Lo Han Chai
For the stir-fry:
- 1 carrot, peeled and sliced into half-moons
- 3 blocks firm tofu (momengoshi), deep-fried till golden and diced
- 2 bunches pechay or bok choy or 1 bunch Swiss chard, stems diced and leaves sliced into strips
- 1 medium (approximately 300 grams) can shiitake or button mushrooms, drained and liquid reserved
- approximately 100 grams fresh oyster mushrooms, cut into strips
- 1 pack dried wood-ear fungi (tengang daga), soaked
- approximately 100 – 150 grams fresh baby corn, sliced on the bias
- 1 head of broccoli, broken into florets and the stem peeled, trimmed, and julienned
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 1 small red onion, sliced thinly
- 6 – 10 spring onions, finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed, peeled, and minced
- 1 chicken bouillon cube (optional if you’re making this all-vegetarian)
For the braising sauce:
- Reserved mushroom liquid with enough water to make 2 cups total liquid
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons oyster sauce or vegetarian substitute thereof
Combine the sauce ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Set aside.
Put a wok over medium heat. Once it heats up, add the oil. When the oil sizzles, add the sliced onion and the white part of the spring onions; cook till softened. Add the garlic and cook until the garlic has browned a little at the edges. Add the carrot slices, julienned broccoli stem, and the pechay stems; stir-fry for about two minutes. Drain the wood-ear fungi and cut into thin strips. Add these along with the shiitake and oyster mushrooms; stir fry for two minutes more. If using the bouillon cube, add it at this point and toss with the vegetables until it has more or less dissolved. Add the baby corn and broccoli and stir-fry for three minutes. Pour in the braising sauce and stir the dish well to coat all the vegetables. Cook until the sauce is bubbling and slightly thickened. Toss in the pechay leaves and the tofu; mix well and cook an additional two to three minutes.
Remove from heat and move to a serving platter. If desired, as shown above, pour the cooked vegetables over blanched noodles. Scatter the green spring onions over to garnish.
Serves 8 as a side dish; serves 4 as a vegetarian main.