Chinese New Year is one of my favourite times of the year. You can get together with family, eat lots of good food, receive lucky money (!), and remember all the interesting and wonderful traditions that are part of the Chinese culture.
For example, in my family, we try to be vegetarian on the first day of the New Year. No doubt this practice has its origins in Buddhism and, although my family isn't Buddhist, we observe this tradition because it isn't such a huge sacrifice, especially when you have a wonderful vegetarian dish to look forward to!
At home, we just call this dish tsai, which means vegetarian food; at this time of year, it clearly refers to this one dish that Moocow and I look forward to. We usually end up making a huge wok-ful, because everyone in the house has some, and we can have more throughout the day, or the next few days. It is very simple to make, and nutritious as well. The most important thing is to have the right number of ingredients, and the right kinds.
During the lunar New Year, everything has to be lucky and auspicious. Red is a lucky colour, as are most even numbers (though not four, which sounds like the word for death!!). The numbers eight, nine, ten and thirteen, especially, are considered lucky, so we make sure that we have one of those numbers of ingredients in the tsai.
This year, I soaked some dried shiitake mushrooms and wood ear fungus, which are always featured in my family's version of this dish. I keep the shiitake water because it contains a lot of flavour, and can be used instead of chicken broth. The snow peas and carrots are for colour and sweetness.
At Moocow's suggestion, I also soaked some dried lily bulbs, which signify togetherness at this happy time of year. They, and the small, red dates, are also slightly sweet. I never actually eat the red dates, but I like how they look. When I brought the tsai in to work the other day, however, two people said that they liked them.
You'll also want to soak some vermicelli (also known as cellophane or mung bean noodles). Normally, we would also want to put in a fungus called fat choi, which seriously resembles hair. It adds a certain flavour to the dish, and is very lucky because it sounds a lot like the word for prosperity. However, in recent years I've learned that this particular species may have been overharvested. It has become more difficult to acquire, and I certainly wouldn't want to be responsible for driving it to extinction, so I didn't use any.
Clean some napa cabbage and cut it into bite-sized pieces. You should cut them slightly larger than you would expect, because they shrink a little as they cook. Then, one of my favourites, is the dried tofu skin. You buy it in packages, and they're hard, brittle spears that you need to soak for a while (at least an hour), otherwise they won't cook properly. After they've soaked and softened, you can cut them into bite-sized pieces.
So, have you been counting? I had nine ingredients in my tsai this year. You can also put in peeled and sliced rounds of lotus root, sugar snap peas, snow fungus, or even dried oysters (soaked). "Dried oysters!" you might say. Yes, they aren't vegetarian. Somehow, though, they are kosher for this dish. Why? Well, my father had a story about how the Buddha called all the animals to a meeting (perhaps it was the one to invite them to the New Year's banquet, which decided their order in the Chinese zodiac) and, while he was talking, he had his staff in a pool of water. When he was finished and lifted his staff to leave, he found that some oysters had attached to it. This made the oysters "clean" and special in some way. I'm still not sure how it makes it all right to eat them, but there you go.
So, heat some oil in the wok and put in a couple of slices of peeled ginger. Then, stir-fry the carrots and snow peas and the wood ear fungus with a little bit of salt. This helps to keep the colours nice and bright. Don't stir-fry the shiitake mushrooms, though, because they can become tough. Set aside the carrots and snow peas. In the wok, with the wood ear fungs and ginger, add the napa cabbage, shiitake mushroom and tofu skin. Add a little bit of salt and some soy sauce and cook over medium heat until the napa cabbage is tender. The cabbage should release quite a bit of liquid as it cooks, but you may need to add water. If you have the water from soaking the shiitake mushrooms, use that.
Once the napa cabbage and tofu skin are cooked to your liking, add the red dates and lily bulb. Cook for a minute or two. At this point, I adjust the seasonings a little, with salt, soy sauce, a little bit of sugar, and white pepper. Then, add the vermicelli and mix it into the other ingredients well. You will probably need to add liquid in at this point. The vermicelli cooks quickly, so cook for just another three or four minutes. Taste, and adjust seasonings again, if it's necessary. At the end, add the snow peas and carrots back in and mix it all together. By this point, it's probably a huge wok full of food, and will give you quite a workout!
Serve it nice and hot, either on its own, or with rice. This is a dish that keeps well for a couple of days in the refrigerator. When you reheat it, either in a pot or in the microwave, be sure to add a little liquid. If you reheat it by steaming, that won't be necessary.