Today's featured vegetable on the Spring Discovery series is technically a fungus. Since I've told you about white fungus, it's only fair that I also bring your attention to black fungus. This edible fungus grows on trees and is commonly available as cloud ear or wood ear mushrooms, owing no less to its appearance. Do you see ears in the bowl?
These mushrooms don't impart a whole lot of flavor but are enjoyed for their unique rubbery and gelatinous texture that adds a slippery yet pleasant crunch to dishes. They are also rich in dietary fiber, high in iron, and used in traditional Chinese medicine to help with blood circulation.
They are one of the key ingredients in a popular Buddhist vegetarian dish known as Buddha's Delight or Lo Hon Jai that is traditionally served by the Chinese in Malaysia during Lunar New Year and other festive occasions.
It is not difficult to make Buddha's Delight but finding all the ingredients may be challenging because this humble little massive dish (pardon the contradiction) usually calls for 15 to 20 ingredients! The mixture of ingredients may vary from recipe to recipe, but what makes it truly special are the different textures in every bite and that umami-strong flavor that comes from fermented soybeans.
I don't use as many ingredients when I make Buddha's Delight at home but I try to stick to the core textures and flavors that make it such a delightful dish: sweet crunch of vegetables, comforting bites of pillowy tofu, and slippery chews from black fungus and glass noodles in a savory miso ginger sauce.
I keep it under 10 ingredients (not counting oil and salt) and these are things that are fairly easy to find, with an introduction to black fungus if you've never tried it before.
Fermented bean curd is traditionally used for the sauce but here's a delicious secret: miso paste does the job pretty well too. And let's admit it, we're more likely to have that on hand. It has become my dependable substitute for recipes asking for some kind of fermented soy product, like this vegetarian Nyonya pongteh. I will get to fermented bean curd (Asian cheese, as some call it, and it's vegan!) soon on this blog, I promise!
Now, let's get to the ingredients, starting with the hero of the day: black fungus. In the process of writing this post, I've learned a great deal about it. The first thing to note is that there are generally two types, wood ears and cloud ears. And the second important thing to note is that they can be found in fresh and dried forms in Asian stores, usually simply labeled "black fungus". Let's look at the key differences:
- Dried black fungus is easier to find and can be kept for a long time (if not forever!) when stored properly in a dry sealed container in a dark place. They need to be reconstituted (about 1 hour in warm water or overnight in cold water, depending on the type) before use and will swell two to three times the dry size.
- Fresh black fungus can sometimes be found in the refrigerator section and should be stored like any other raw mushrooms. I usually keep it in its original packaging until ready for use and I keep the extras in a paper bag or wrapped up in a paper towel in a plastic bag and placed in the fridge.
Update: Not long after posting this, I spotted fresh wood ears at the farmers market! Check out my Instagram photo.
- Wood ears are usually larger and thicker with a crunchier texture and should be cut or torn into the desired sizes before use. Dried wood ears are recognisable by their two tones, black on one side and beige on the other, and may require longer soaking time than dried cloud ears.
- Cloud ears are delicate in size and structure and have a more gelatinous texture. It may sometimes be necessary to tear them into smaller pieces but they are usually good to go.
- Black fungus can be added to soups, stews, stir-fries, and even salads for a jelly-like texture with a slight crunch. While wood and cloud ears can often be used interchangeably, wood ears are suited for long, slow cooking and cloud ears are best for quick cooking.
The other vegetables that have found their way into this Buddha's Delight recipe are Napa cabbage, sugar snap peas or snow peas, and carrot, while ginger and green onion contribute their flavors to the seasoning along with miso paste, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Oh, the colors that come together!
Although Napa cabbage is the cabbage of choice in Buddha's Delight, other kinds of cabbage like Savoy and green cabbage can also be used. I would avoid red cabbage as it has an earthier taste that's not suitable for this dish. Also known as Chinese cabbage, Napa cabbage has a mild flavor and softens with cooking. It has a cylindrical shape with tough outer leaves that are removed. The stems need longer cooking time and are best cooked separately from the delicate leaves, which is what I did with this recipe.
Sugar snap peas or snow peas provide a contrasting sweet crunch in this dish and are added towards the end so they are not overcooked to a mush. According to The Chinese Kitchen Garden, snow peas are flat with tiny pea seeds inside while sugar snap peas (a cross between snow peas and garden peas) are bulging pods containing bigger peas. Both can be eaten whole and raw and either can be used in this recipe, although it helps to remove the tough strings at the seams, which I do by simply pulling them from one end to the other with my fingers.
Adding more textures to my Buddha's Delight are glass noodles. Also known as cellophane noodles, mung bean vermicelli, and tang hoon, these clear noodles are made of mung beans and turn transparent and springy when cooked. They are usually sold in bundles (either individually wrapped or packing several together) as shown in the photo above. The great thing about them is they soak up the sauce and carry a lot of the flavors and are in my opinion essential in this dish. They are the main ingredient in the Thai salad yum woon sen recipe that I've shared here.
There you have it, the ingredients for making easy Buddha's Delight at home!
This post is part of the on-going Spring Discovery series and this year's focus is on Asian vegetables. You may also be interested to find out more about Asian greens and taro root. Happy cooking!
Vegetable Stir Fry with Black Fungus (Easy Buddha's Delight)
A simplified version of the popular Buddhist vegetarian dish Buddha's Delight or Lo Hon Jai for easy home cooking. Serves 3 to 4 accompanied with rice.
1/2 cup dried or 2 cups fresh black fungus
50g (about 1 bundle) glass noodles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1-inch ginger, peeled and sliced
1 green onion, chopped, white and green parts separated
1 cup carrot, sliced into coins
4 cups Napa cabbage, cut into 2-inch pieces, stems and leaves separated
3 tablespoons miso paste, mixed with 1 cup water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 cup sugar snap peas or snow peas, trimmed and strings removed
2 cups (about 1/2 block) firm or extra-firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Sea salt, to taste
If using dried black fungus, soak in hot water for about 1 hour or until softened or soak in cold water overnight. Wash black fungus under running water, pat dry and remove the stems. Tear or cut them into smaller pieces if necessary. Set aside.
Soak the glass noodles in hot water until until they become soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the ginger and white part of the green onion and stir-fry until fragrant. Stir in the carrots and cabbage stems. Add the miso mixture and bring to a boil.
Add the cabbage leaves, black fungus, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Turn the heat down, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the glass noodles, sugar snap peas, and tofu, and simmer for another 5 minutes. The glass noodles will soak up the water so add more hot water at this point if you want more sauce. Add salt to taste. Garnish with the green part of the green onion and serve warm with rice.