Buddha's Delight: The Vegetarian Stir-Fry to Rule All Vegetarian Stir-Fries

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Buddha's Delight is a celebration of vegetarian textures and flavors. [Photographs: Shao Z.]

If you search for vegetarian stir-fry recipes online, the first ones to come up usually contain a cast of familiar characters: string beans, carrots, tofu, bell peppers, and broccoli. There's nothing wrong with stir-frying tofu and broccoli together, especially when it's Kenji's recipe for Vegan Crispy Stir-Fried Tofu With Broccoli, but there are so many other great meat alternatives worth adding to your stir-fry repertoire, and all of them can be found at your local Asian supermarket. If there's one dish that brings them all together, it's Buddha's Delight (Lo Hon Jai in Cantonese).

Buddha's Delight is particularly popular during Chinese holidays, such as Lunar New Year or Tomb Sweeping Day (Ching Ming). One of the things I love about Buddha's Delight is the different texture each ingredient brings to it.

There is no single recipe for Buddha's Delight. The ingredients and the seasonings can vary quite a bit from one version to another, though there are a few that are customary. A good Buddha's Delight will not only have a variety of vegetables, but also a variety of components made from soybean and wheat gluten.

These are some of the most common vegetables and proteins used:

  • Bean Curd Sticks (made from dried yuba, the skin that forms on top of hot soy milk)
  • Bean Thread Noodles
  • Fat Choy (Black Moss)
  • Chai Pow Yu (Chinese Braised Gluten)
  • Gingko Nuts
  • Lotus Roots
  • Napa Cabbage
  • Shiitake Mushrooms
  • Tofu Puffs (cubed, deep-fried pieces of tofu)
  • Water Chestnuts
  • Wood Ear Mushrooms

Most renditions of Buddha's Delight will have at least four or five of these ingredients, plus additional vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, and fresh mushrooms.

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Bean curd sticks, made from dried yuba—the skin that form on hot skim milk much the way a skin forms on hot cow's milk—has a pleasantly mild flavor and slightly chewy bite.

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Tofu puffs are cubed shaped tofu that have been deep fried. The deep frying process makes the tofu chewy on the outside, and light and puffy with a sponge-like texture on the inside.

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Chai pow yu (also known as Chinese braised gluten or vegetarian mock abalone) is a popular meat substitute in Chinese vegetarian cooking. The wheat gluten is first fried and then slowly braised in a rich vegetarian sauce. It's usually sold in a can and is one of my favorite ingredients in Buddha's Delight. It's savory, flavorful, and just like the bean curd sticks, chewy and absorbent.

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Another must in Buddha's Delight are bean thread noodles, which become translucent when cooked. They're usually made from mung bean starch and are popular in stir-fries, clay pot dishes, and also as an ingredient in fillings for dumplings.

Once you've picked out the ingredients from the above list, the next step is seasoning the Buddha's Delight. My mother's go-to is a bottle of Lee Kum Kee Vegetarian Stir-Fry sauce. One of the benefits of cooking with this sauce, and similar varieties, is that it has a texture and flavor similar to oyster sauce, except it's vegetarian. If you frequently cook vegetarian stir-fries, it's a good sauce to have around the kitchen, but it's not absolutely necessary.

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Another option is to make your own sauce. One of my favorite ways is to use the soaking liquid from rehydrating dried shiitake mushrooms, mixing it with kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) and a dash of soy sauce. The shiitake mushroom liquid and soy sauce add an umami flavor, while the kecap manis adds a bit of sweetness, and because of its thickness, viscosity as well. I also add some cornstarch to help thicken the sauce even more.

To cook the dish, I start by soaking the shiitake mushrooms, bean curd sticks, and bean thread noodle. It's best to do this overnight with cold water, but if you need the ingredients the day of cooking, you can soak everything in hot water for at least 2 hours. Once you have your dried ingredients rehydrated, make sure to reserve the shiitake's soaking liquid and strain out any grit before using it in the sauce.

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I quickly blanch the greens and then rinse under cold running water. I like to use a mixture of baby bok chop and napa cabbage, but other vegetables such as asparagus, string beans, and broccoli are also great.

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Next, I heat up the wok with oil and add the chai pow yu, mushrooms, tofu puffs, and bean curd sticks. As the mushrooms turn golden brown, in go the greens. I stir-fry them for a minute or two, until the vegetables are tender, and then add in the bean thread noodles.

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I pour the sauce in, giving it a good stir first to make sure the cornstarch hasn't settled on the bottom, and continue mixing and stirring everything as it cooks. It might look like too much sauce at first, but the bean curd sticks, tofu puffs, chai pow yu, and bean thread noodles will absorb most of it and the cornstarch will thicken it.

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As soon as it's ready, transfer it to a plate and serve with rice alongside. I think you'll agree that the great thing about Buddha's Delight is that it goes beyond the usual vegetable stir-fry suspects to include unexpected ingredients that deliver tons of texture and flavor.

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