Lo Hon Chai (Chap Chai)

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Lo Hon Chai is a regular feature at our Chinese New Year reunion table. I remember that, being a vegetarian dish, it was prepared in the past for those who were abstaining from meat during the first two days of the new year. 

I used to pity those who took this option, considering all the other delicious meaty dishes on the table. As I grew older, I have come to appreciate how satisfying a bowl of this can be – all on its own – accompanied by a steaming bowl of rice and a small plate of Sambal Belacan.

My Mum's version involves a braised cabbage dish, using wong bok (Napa cabbage). It will be better to use the smaller younger cabbage, which is less green in colour and sweeter. The recipe can be simplified for daily dinners or enriched with protein added through fried bean curd, mushrooms, and lily buds to become a standalone vegetarian dish for Chinese New Year. The Nonya version includes tau cheong (salted soy beans) and Hokkiens will add fermented bean curd.

My mum used the milder-tasting white fermented bean curd or fu yee instead of the reddish nam yee, though, as a general rule, the red one is for cooking and the white is for eating as an accompaniment. She also added shredded carrots for its sweetness and bean curd skin and vermicelli, both deep fried.

I prefer the wok for cooking this dish as the heat is more even, I can stir easily and see what is going on. If you use a deep pot, it is likely that the heat will be higher at the bottom and the stuff there will be overcooked unless you stir more frequently. Look to see that the cabbage is soft enough, and use your taste buds as a guide.

While this dish is easy to make, it can be difficult to master. Flavour balance is important as too much of one ingredient can change the taste. Dried oysters and mushrooms have strong flavors. Soak and wash your oyster carefully.  

Texture is another challenge as the cabbage can be too soft when overcooked. The cabbage pieces should not break apart. Remember that even after you switch off the fire, the pot of food is still cooking.

This dish is suited for ‘all day long’ eating, as you can continue to add ingredients to the first lot and cook new batches.

Serves 6-8
1 large Chinese long cabbage, cut into broad strips
1 liter (4 cups) water or stock
100 g bean vermicelli (fun see), deep fried
4 dried sweet bean curd wafers (tim chok), deep fried and cut into bite-sized pieces
2 dried bean curd sticks (fu chok), cut into 7½-cm (3-in) strips and deep fried
8 Chinese dried mushrooms, soaked and sliced
15 small dried oysters (hou see), soaked
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp salt
3 tbps vegetable oil
2 thin slices of ginger
4 cubes (2 cm, 0.8 in) white fermented bean curd, mashed finely
15 small black fungus, soaked and cut into pieces
12 dried lily buds, trimmed, soaked and knotted
2 carrots, shredded
30 g (1 oz) black moss (fatt choi), (optional), soaked

For garnishing - Coriander leaves

  1. Lightly deep fry separately the bean vermicelli, bean curd wafers and bean curd sticks and set aside.
  2. Braise mushrooms and dried oysters together in some water with the oyster sauce and soy sauce over a low fire for about 30 minutes.
  3. Heat the oil in a wok and fry the ginger till golden brown.
  4. Add the white fermented bean curd and stir fry briskly until aromatic.
  5. Put in the black fungus, dried lily buds, carrot, cabbage and stir fry briskly for 2 minutes. Add the stock or water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  6. Add the braised mushrooms, dried oysters, bean curd sticks and wafers, and simmer for 10 more minutes. Taste and adjust, adding some light soy sauce if you wish. 
  7. Finally, add the deep fried bean vermicelli and the black moss. Stir a bit more and switch off the fire. 
Serve hot in a bowl, garnished with coriander leaves and accompanied by a small plate of Sambal Belacan and a bowl of steaming rice. 

Editor's note: I have blogged an earlier recipe for this in this link.

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