Spicy Buddha’s Feast

羅漢齋

One of the classics of Chinese Buddhist cuisine is known as “Pure Meal of the Arhats”—pure meal being a euphemism for vegetarian dish, and arhats (or bodhisattvas as they are often called), referring to the bevy of Buddhas-on-earth who relinquished life in the upper realms in order to serve a nobler existence in the world of suffering below. In its standard form the dish includes soft ginko nuts, black mushrooms, tangles of hair-fine seaweed, and small wads of soy-seasoned wheat gluten, all in a purposefully mild and unscintillating brown sauce. Not much of a feast! This rendition is heretically different. It is very colorful and full-flavored, and also highly spiced—the path to my own culinary illumination being frequently strewn with chilies.

  • This is a dish that makes broad use of canned and dried ingredients—all excellent and easily obtainable either in Oriental markets or through mail order. Once you have in stock the requisite cans and bags, all that is needed is one or two bright-looking fresh vegetables and the feast is on its way. Lest the list of ingredients daunt you, be assured that most things Buddhist are invitingly flexible. Hence, one vegetable may be used instead of two, you may double the baby corn in the absence of straw mushrooms, or you may enliven the braised tofu with a shot of chili oil if the curried gluten is unavailable. The only rule is to mix dried, canned, and fresh ingredients in equal amounts, keeping it strictly vegetarian to please the Buddha.
  • Preparations are simple and may be done a day or more ahead.

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Ingredients

For the feast

For stir-frying

  • about ¼ cup corn or peanut oil
  • ¼ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar
  • 1½–2 tablespoons thin (regular) soy sauce
  • ¾ cup liquid (about ½ cup water and ¼ cup curried canning juices to taste)

To garnish

  • teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil

Method

Preparations

Soak the bean threads in warm or hot tap water until rubber-band firm. Do not oversoak, lest they turn to mush when cooled. Drain, cut through the loop ends of the skein into 5-inch lengths, then cut and discard the rubber bands or strings holding the skein together.

Soak the black mushrooms in cold or hot water to cover until fully soft and spongy, 20 minutes to an hour. Drain, snip off and discard the stems, then rinse the caps under running water to dislodge any sand trapped in the gills. Cut the caps in half if you have more feasters than mushrooms.

Drain the canned com and canned mushrooms. Rinse, then shake dry. Extra com and mushrooms may be refrigerated up to 2 weeks, in water to cover. Change the water every 2–3 days.

Cut the “braised dried bean curd” against the grain into slices ¼-inch thick. Drain the “curried braised gluten,” retaining the canning liquid, then cut into slices ⅛–¼ inch thick. The remaining bean curd and gluten will keep up to 1 week, refrigerated and sealed airtight. Both make excellent, low-calorie snacks.

Holding a sharp, thin-bladed cleaver or knife parallel to the board, cut each slab of pressed tofu crosswise into slices ⅛-inch thick, anchoring it to the board with “flying fingers”. Stack the slices, then cut them lengthwise neatly into slivers ⅛-inch wide, using “curved knuckles”.

Combine all the above ingredients. They may be refrigerated up to 1½ days prior to stir-frying, sealed airtight. Bring to room temperature before cooking.

Slice the Chinese cabbage and/or one of the other vegetables as follows: Cut the cabbage crosswise into bands ¾-1 inch wide, then cut any very long bands in half. Remove the tips and top strings from snow peas and sugar snap peas. Cut the broccoli as directed, to make pretty use of the stems. Cut zucchini crosswise into rounds ¼ inch thick.

The cut vegetables may be refrigerated overnight in water-misted plastic bags. Bag cabbage and a second vegetable separately.

Stir-frying the dish

About 10–15 minutes in advance of serving, have all the ingredients and a bowl to hold the vegetables within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a serving platter or bowl of contrasting color in a low oven to warm.

Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 1½ tablespoons oil if you are stir-frying two vegetables separately, or add 2½ tablespoons oil if you are cooking only one vegetable. Swirl to coat the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one piece of vegetable, add the vegetables and stir-fry briskly to gloss with oil, adjusting the heat so it sizzles without scorching and dribbling in a bit more oil from the side if the pan becomes too dry. When evenly glossed, sprinkle with salt and sugar—half or the full amount, depending upon whether you are cooking one or two vegetables—then continue tossing briskly until the vegetable is almost cooked through, but still very crisp. (Snow peas and sugar peas will require about 15 seconds, zucchini about 30 seconds, and broccoli 1 minute.) Remove the vegetable to the waiting bowl and repeat with the second vegetable if you are using it.

Return the pan to medium-high heat, add 1½ tablespoons oil, then swirl to coat. Add the combined ingredients and toss briskly to mix. Sprinkle with 1½ tablespoons soy, toss to blend, then add the liquid. Raise the heat to bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring. Even the contents of the pan, adjust the heat to maintain a steady simmer, then cover the pan and steam-cook about 2 minutes, or until most of the liquid is evaporated. Reduce the heat to low and uncover the pan.

Stir, taste several noodles (it is the noodles that best absorb the seasonings), and adjust with a bit more soy and/or curried liquids if needed. Return the vegetables to the pan, toss to mix, then turn off the heat. Fold in the sesame oil and remove the mixture to the serving platter. Arrange several of the different items festively on top and serve.

Leftovers keep well 3–4 days, refrigerated and sealed airtight, and increase in spiciness. They are delicious at room temperature, or can be steamed in a covered bowl if you don’t mind soft vegetables.

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