Buddha's Delight

Buddha's delight

Since the new year is all about renewal and change, a meal that symbolizes purity and enlightenment is an ideal choice for a healthy new beginning. Buddha's delight is a dish traditionally prepared in Buddhist monasteries for the monks who subsist entirely on a vegetarian diet. It has gained popularity worldwide and now can be found served in almost all Chinese restaurants, including the widely frequented take-out places on every corner. This stir-fry is customarily prepared for the first day of the Chinese New Year. Buddhist practice maintains that eating vegetarian meals for the beginning of the new year can reboot or purify the body.

This particular dish adheres to that custom and each ingredient is symbolic: bamboo shoots symbolize wealth and new beginnings; cabbage, prosperity; carrots, luck; shitakes, opportunity; fried tofu, gold; snow peas and water chestnuts, unity; and noodles, longevity. Don't cut the noodles if you want long life. There are, however, many varying recipes for this popular stir-fry depending on where it's made, the Asian region or restaurant, and who makes it, the monk or the chef. It typically consists of at least ten ingredients or sometimes more than twenty, making the symbolism even greater.

The recipe I've created adheres to the most traditional ingredients, some are mentioned above, that are also easy to procure at Asian grocers. I was unable to find some of the other traditional ingredients, such as gingko nuts, dried lily buds, and dried bean curd sticks. If you are able to find them, go ahead and add them. Here I use dried shitakes rather than fresh because the mushroom flavor from the reconstituted mushroom and its soaking liquid is a wonderful addition. If unavailable, substitute fresh shitakes and vegetable broth. The products used for the sauce can readily be found in the international aisle of the supermarket, but if one or the other is left out, it won't detrimentally change the result. Japanese Mirin can be used in place of the rice wine if unavailable.

Buddha's Delight

1 8-ounce package firm tofu, drained and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 8-ounce package saifun bean threads
1 1-ounce package dried sliced shitake mushrooms
peanut oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon potato starch
1 tablespoon grated garlic (about 2 cloves)
1 tablespoon grated ginger (about 1/2-inch piece)
8 ounces snow peas
2 large carrots, thinly sliced
1 8-ounce can sliced water chestnuts, drained
1 8-ounce can sliced bamboo shoots, drained
1/2 head napa cabbage, sliced into 1/2-inch strips
fine sea salt

Place tofu cubes on a plate lined with paper towels. Top with paper towels and another plate. Weigh down with additional plates. Repeat pressings two more times with fresh paper towels until tofu releases almost no liquid.

Add bean threads to a bowl and cover with 4 cups boiling water. Soak, submerged with a small plate, for 20 minutes. Drain pasta.

Add dried mushrooms to a bowl and cover with 2 cups of boiling water. Soak, submerged with a small plate, for 20 minutes. Squeeze liquid from mushrooms and reserve liquid.

Combine 1/2 cup reserved mushroom liquid with soy sauce, rice wine, oyster sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and potato starch.

Warm about 1/2-inch oil in a well-seasoned wok or large nonstick sauté pan set over medium-high to high heat. Add tofu and fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Drain on a tray lined with paper towels. Pour out oil and wipe out wok.

Add fresh oil to wok. Add garlic and ginger, sauté for 30 seconds. Add snow peas and carrots, sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Add mushrooms, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots, sauté for 1 to 2 minutes. Add cabbage and sauté for 1 minute. Add fried tofu and pour in sauce mixture. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt. Gently fold in bean threads to coat with sauce. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.