Buddha's Delight

I like most types of mushroom. There are certainly types I like more than others, but I don’t think there’s an edible mushroom that I’ve come across yet that I haven’t liked (except for when it gets stuck in my teeth!).

Today I found out the vegetarian dish that my grandparents cook us at Chinese New Year and various special occasions is referred to as Buddha’s delight in English, and 羅漢齋 (lo hon zhai) in Chinese. However in my family we usually just refer to it as 齋 (zhai), which is basically just calling it ‘vegetarian food’ and not particularly helpful in identifying what it’s called.

(This English name is actually kind of awkward since I’m used to “Buddha’s Delight” reminding me of the video above. To see what I really mean, see this video showing her music video from the movie Music and Lyrics.)

As expected, it’s a dish that originated with Buddhist monks and now is more readily available - it would be interesting to see if I can order a dish of this at our favourite Hong Kong Cafe (restaurant) in Chatswood, I’ve never looked for it on the menu.

Here’s a snippet from the Wikipedia article:

It is traditionally served in Chinese households on the first day of the Chinese New Year, stemming from the old Buddhist practice that one should maintain a vegetarian diet in the first five days of the new year, as a form of self-purification. Some of the rarer ingredients, such as fat choy and arrowhead, are generally only eaten at this time of year.

“Should maintain a vegetarian diet”? Usually the vegetarian dish is paired with fish (wishes for money left over in the new year), chicken (more prosperity) and more, so that’s rather curious. You can see a full list of food symbolism here. It’s just as complex as Japanese food symbolism, though naturally vary greatly.

Nonetheless, one aspect of the lo hon zhai dish I’ve always liked is the cellophane noodles (粉絲), the Chinese cabbage/wombok (黃芽白) (nappa cabbage?), wood ear (木耳) and fat choy (髮菜)… when it was safe to eat because there was counterfeit fat choy. Some Chinese counterfeit anything.

But one ingredient I always liked nomatter the form was Chinese mushrooms/black mushrooms! I’ve always thought these were synonymous with shiitake mushrooms, but have been told otherwise by other people. Now though, Wikipedia has set me straight!

One type of high grade shiitake is called donko in Japanese and dōnggū in Chinese, literally "winter mushroom". Another high grade of mushroom is called huāgū in Chinese, literally "flower mushroom", which has a flower-like cracking pattern on the mushroom's upper surface. Both of these are produced at lower temperatures.

We call them donggu! In fact, we call both that, even the one with the flower-like cracking pattern which I’m sure we have cooked before. I wasn’t aware that the dong part was referring specifically to ‘winter’ though, rather than a direction (north).

The variety we usually have are dried and then rehydrated through a lengthy process my mother insists on. While I’m well used to eating the dehydrated ones, it’s interesting to read the below though:

Shiitake are also dried and sold as preserved food. These are rehydrated by soaking in water before using. Many people prefer dried shiitake to fresh, considering that the sun-drying process draws out the umami flavour from the dried mushrooms. The stems of shiitake are rarely used in Japanese and other cuisines, primarily because the stems are harder and take longer to cook than the soft fleshy caps.

More umami! No wonder I love rehydrated shiitake, especially cooked with oyster sauce, which I’m not sure if contains any real oyster.. I’m sorry if it does because then it’s not vegetarian, is it?

When my mother rehydrates them, she first soaks them over a period of a few hours, then wrings them all out by hand, boils them in a new pot of water, wrings them out again, then marinates them. This is apparently to remove any toxins, either from the process of growing them or preserving them I guess.

But with this new vegetarian diet, I’ve been having mushrooms a LOT lately because my parents have started cooking it a lot. And the texture satisfies my need to bite into something more substantial than a vegetable. This explains it:

Mushrooms are used extensively in cooking, in many cuisines (notably Chinese, Korean, European, and Japanese). Though neither meat nor vegetable, mushrooms are known as the "meat" of the vegetable world.

Mushrooms, the meat of the vegetable world! Well, I guess I’ll be eating mushrooms more along this vegetarian journey.