Where to Find Jai in Chinatown for Chinese New Year
If you’re looking for the traditional dish of jai to celebrate the Year of the Ox, here are four places we tried in Downtown Honolulu.
This post was originally published in January 2020 and updated on Feb. 8, 2021.
With Chinese New Year right around the corner on Feb. 12, there are certain Chinese cultural traditions we can look forward to. Lion dances and firecrackers to ward off evil spirits. And, of course, eating dried, candied fruit; sticky, mochi-like gau or nian gao; tangerines and whole fish for good luck.
There’s another seasonal dish that Chinese restaurants usually only offer for a few weeks this time each year. Some call it “monk’s food,” others call it “Buddha’s delight” and everybody seems to spell it differently—“luo han zhai,” “loh han chai,” “lo han jai” and other variations. It’s an acquired taste for many and those who love it are typically loyal to their favorites. But if you want to try this traditionally vegetarian dish (although some versions include oysters), be sure to snag an order before it vanishes. To help, here’s a round-up of a few restaurants in Chinatown preparing jai especially well.
Proper jai is usually made with an assortment of ingredients—sometimes more than 20—each which represents an element of good fortune for the new year. Mei Sum goes the distance with more than a dozen: snap peas, water chestnuts, ginkgo nuts, baby corn, bamboo, won bok, wood ear fungus, button and shiitake mushrooms, bean curd sticks (foo jook), slices of radish or turnip and assorted items with thin long rice noodles in a slightly sweeter-than-usual jai gravy. Don’t let the petite serving bowl fool you: there’s enough jai in a single order at Mei Sum for three or more people.
$12.95, 1170 Nu‘uanu Ave. Suite 102, (808) 531-3268
If you prefer your jai more savory, swing by Golden Palace Seafood Restaurant, nestled between the red ornate columns on King Street in Chinatown. It’s serving a hearty, stew-like jai enriched by mashed, slightly sour goji berries in the sauce. Ingredients include two types of fried tofu, carrots, snap peas, wood ear fungus and shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, bamboo, and golden needle (dried lily flower) with thick long rice noodles.
$9.95, 111 N. King St., (808) 521-8268
Ginger & Garlic
At the corner of Smith and Pauahi streets, bigger is better inside Ginger & Garlic, which is offering the largest bowl of jai on this list. The ingredients are equally huge, with giant cuts of fried tofu, wood ear fungus and shiitake mushrooms. Plus, sliced button mushrooms, won bok, snap peas, carrots, and long rice noodles. Bring your appetite, or at least a decent sized takeout container.
$13.95, 1138 Smith St., (808) 537-3883
In my opinion, this is an outstanding jai. All the ingredients are there: baby corn, carrots, snap peas, fried gluten (mien gun), shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, won bok, long rice—plus tofu skin, and grape-sized dates. Little Village is the priciest option on this list but the ingredients taste particularly fresh and you get a huge mound of jai for your buck. Not a bad way to start the (Lunar) New Year.
$16.95, 1113 Smith St., (808) 545-3008