Today, the 15th day of CNY, is the last day of the new year celebrations. Endings are always tinged with some sadness while beginnings are exciting and hopeful. You get the feeling that after today it's back to normal routine and drudgery for the rest of the year, until 9 months from now in November when the kids return for summer holidays (for Oz students) and December when Christmas comes again. Ah well, that's how I mark my year, by my kids coming home and by the festivities.
This is a dish that is eaten on the 1st day of CNY, especially by the Buddhists who are vegetarians. Mom didn't cook this for the 1st day this year, so I thought it'd be good to have it on the last day of CNY especially after all the heavy meat dishes the last 2 weeks. Though not Buddhists, my parents made it a family tradition to eat this dish too on the 1st day of CNY, and Dad always sets the new year celebration into swing by frying the beancurd sticks and mung bean vermicelli after the reunion dinner on the eve. My younger bro, Joe, would always be the one assigned to grate tons of chinese radish for the radish cake on the eve. This year I sweet-talked Wey into grating the radish, and I hope he continues with this tradition.
Zhai was never a dish that I liked because it was, well, so zhai, so vegetarian. But now that I'm old(er), I'm beginning to appreciate this dish and once a year is good enough for me. My mom cooked it more as a stew and the reason why mom's zhai was more like a stew is because she cooked tons of it and we had to eat it day after day, and with each re-heating of the dish the ingredients became more flavored but softer. Maybe that's why I disliked the dish.
This is the first time I cooked zhai. It turned out pretty good but just before serving, I added the whole lot of fried mung bean vermicelli and they disintegrated into the stew and soaked up all the liquid. Next time I cook this (which would be next year), I would not fry the mung bean vermicelli. Mom's traditional version had no fresh veg in it so that it can keep for days (and weeks). It's really up to you but the basic ingredients are mung bean vermicelli, beancurd sticks, chinese dried mushrooms, dried lily buds, cloud's ears (an edible fungus), red dates (I forgot to add these) and red fermented tofu. You can cook a basic version without the fresh veg, keep it in the fridge and add the fresh veg such as carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, snow peas and enoki mushrooms when you heat up the dish. When you do that, it becomes the regular everyday zhai on the menu of most restaurants and food caterers, except that no fermented tofu is used.
CNY Vegetarian Zhai
50 g mung bean vermicelli, soaked & drained
50 g dried beancurd sticks, deep-fried until lightly browned, then soaked & cut 5 cm lengths
1 cup cloud ears, soaked & trimmed of stalks
1 cup dried chinese mushrooms
1/3 cup gingko nuts
1 cup loosely packed dried lily buds, soaked, trimmed & tied into knots
1/4 cup red dates, soaked
3 pieces red fermented bean curd + 2 T red beancurd sauce, mashed together
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 t salt + to taste
2 cups chicken stock (important since there's no meat)
optional: veg such as chinese cabbage (in 3x3 cm pieces), carrots (thin slices) or broccoli florets
1. Put 2 T veg oil into a wok or pot and fry the garlic. Add the red beancurd mash, mushrooms and beancurd sticks and fry for a minute. Add 1 cup chicken stock and let it simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Add the red dates, gingko nuts and another cup of chicken stock, cover and let it simmer for 10 - 15 minutes. Now add the cloud ears and lily buds and simmer again for 5-10 minutes.
3. Taste and add more stock or fermented beancurd and salt if necessary. Test the beancurd sticks. If they have softened and you are fine with the texture, increase the heat, add the mung bean vermicelli and extra stock or water if necessary. Dish up quickly or the vermicelli will become too soft.
4. If including fresh veg, fry it in a little bit of oil and salt, or blanch it, until half-done and add it to the simmering stew for a minute or so before adding the mung bean vermicelli.