I first learned of Buddha Jumps Over The Wall while perusing “The Chinese Kitchen” by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo. As I was flipping through, I noticed a recipe with an entire chapter of the book dedicated to it, a sprawling 3-day preparation complete with 5 traditional side dishes to accentuate the feast. Further investigation revealed a list of almost 30 ingredients, including shark fin, abalone, dried scallop, and a multitude of meat & poultry. It is essentially the world’s most complicated soup, utilizing two different broths and multiple steps involving most ingredients.
Clearly, I had to attempt it.
This was back in 2010, and though Yin-Fei Lo’s book was published back in 1999, there was very little information I could find about it otherwise. For instance, I had no idea what it was even supposed to look like, let alone taste like. Undeterred, a few friends and I forged ahead and put together what I consider a success. This was documented on my food blog way back when. Recently, the dish crossed my mind, and out of curiosity, I checked out YouTube. I was excited to discover several videos showing the many facets of the dish. It felt like time to give it another shot. So I rounded up my co-creator/director Chris Loughran, as well as my old partner in crime Jon Dietz, and we were off to the races…
The History of BJOTW
I prefer how Wikipedia describes the origin –
“There are many different stories about the origin of the dish. A common one is about a scholar traveling by foot throughout Fujian. While he traveled with his friends, the scholar preserved all his food for the journey in a clay jar used for holding wine. Whenever he had a meal, he warmed up the jar with the ingredients over an open fire. Once they arrived in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, the scholar started cooking the dish. The smells spread over to a nearby Buddhist monastery where monks were meditating. Although monks are not allowed to eat meat, one of the monks, tempted, jumped over the wall. A poet among the travelers said that even Buddha would jump the wall to eat the delicious dish.”
The Elements of Buddha
Though Yin-Fei Lo’s recipe was the most accessible for me, I noticed a few variations in the content I found on YouTube. In addition to the shark fin, abalone, and dried scallops, I was introduced to the use of dried sea cucumber, fish maw, soft shell turtle, deer tendon, and bird’s nest. The common thread through all of the exotic ingredients being they are wildly expensive and complicated to come by in this part of the world. The highest quality dried sea cucumbers in the world can fetch $1000/lb, so I sought to find compromise on the low end, purchasing ones that were only $120/lb. I don’t think these ingredients were chosen for their particular deliciousness in many circumstances. Still, for instance, sea cucumbers have had applications in traditional Chinese medicine that include treating ailments like arthritis, cancer, frequent urination, and impotence. Hence many of these hard-to-find items are more accessible to purchase in an apothecary than in grocery stores. In other cases, like the dried scallops, they seem to add umami and depth to the broth.
With many of the exotic ingredients, there comes into play the issue of both overfishing and unethical fishing methods. At the top of this list is shark fin, but also wild abalone and sea cucumbers. While I omitted the fin and abalone, I did include dried sea cucumbers in my dish. While Portland certainly has a wonderful array of Asian markets, a trip down to Boston’s Chinatown was in order to procure some of the harder-to-find items. Though we were trying our best to be subtle, most shop owners were incredibly wary of us and our large camera. One of them told me that everything cost $250 until I left. Fair enough. I am often not a fan of the methods required for proper documentary footage – but you always regret not doing them when you are dealing with the finished product.
Because the dish is meant to highlight the treasures of both land and sea, it also contains pork, lamb, duck, chicken, and quail eggs. Pigeon eggs are traditionally used but much harder to find. One of the more exciting meats it calls for is Jinhua Ham, essentially the Chinese equivalent to Iberico or Prosciutto. Quality examples of this are rarely found in the United States, so I went with a beautiful slab of Serrano ham instead. It literally resembled a ribeye steak. A salty ribeye steak.
Perhaps the most crucial element of the dish is the Shaoxing Wine, as its flavor is truly the backbone of the whole soup. It is vital to seek out high-quality bottles, avoiding the ones labeled for cooking as they have salt added to them. Those ones are about as pleasing as most wines designated for this purpose. Finding a good one can take a little bit of legwork, but I promise you the difference in taste is monumental.
The Process of Buddha Jumps Over The Wall
Day 1 – Not Technically Day 1 If You Count All of the Fucking Shopping
Though Yin-Fei Lo’s recipe calls for 2 days to prepare, it was definitely a 4-day process for me. I began by assembling the two stocks – chicken and what is commonly known as “Superior.” One of the more critical assets of both broths is the frying/blackening of vegetables. This will impart both depth and color and the blanching of the meat and changing of the water to start. I cooked scallions and shallots in the same wok, reserving what I now call “Shallion Oil” for use later on.
I usually simmer the chicken stock with primarily legs and feet, occasionally utilizing a whole bird. It includes fried onions, cilantro, scallions, and garlic – but maybe most notable is the addition of dried goji berries. Since the first time I made this stock 12 years ago, I have never omitted them, even though it’s hard to describe their effect on the broth. I just accept it. End of story. The “Superior” variation is made with both chicken and pork – in this case, I used bones, hocks, and butt. My freezer remains stocked with both because it is impossible to have too much delicious stock.
Day 2 – An Excuse to Cook Lunch
This is a somewhat uneventful day. It generally involves soaking the dried seafood – scallops and sea cucumber in this case, in water overnight (or sometimes longer). This is the perfect day to focus on a delicious lunch like Lychee Pork. This is essentially sweet and sour pork; it just gets its name in that the red-glazed balls look like lychee fruit. Allegedly, one of the concubines of the Xuanzong Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Consort Mei of the Jiang clan, was missing her hometown of Putian, Fujian. So to pacify her, they fed her balls of fried pork that resembled lychee, assuming she wouldn’t know the difference. She was like, “Bro this is pork, not Lychee,” and the chef was like, “No, it’s not,” and she was like, “yes it is,” and he was like, “Nuh-uh, I don’t think so,” and she was like, “as soon as I’m able to free my schedule up I’m going to kick the shit out of you.” This concubine went on to become none other than Wu Zeiten, Empress of China, and upon coming to power, she fed the lying chef to some dinosaurs. True story.
Day 3 – Hot N’ Steamy
My third day of preparation is essentially where the Yin-Fei Lo recipe begins. The first order of business is to break out the bamboo steamer and cook the dried scallops – in a bit of Shaoxing wine – for about 30 minutes. The sea cucumber is not in the master recipe, so I opt to boil it for about 30 min before soaking it in that same water overnight.
The mushrooms are of particular interest in that I was able to find White Flower Shiitakes – one of the highest quality varieties – named for the cracks in the cap, which resemble flowers. These will obviously be an umami bomb for the soup. In addition to steaming a dozen for that purpose, I also need to cook a batch with chicken stock, dark soy, ginger, and chicken fat to go with one of the side dishes. It is also time to break down and salt the duck and chicken and the pork shoulder. I had my butcher cut the pig trotters into 4 pieces each to make them easier to eat. Lastly, the quail eggs must be boiled and shelled for deep-frying tomorrow.
While there is certainly a laundry list of shit to do, there is still plenty of time to make mapo tofu for lunch. It is augmented by the higher quality Shaoxing wine, Zongbha soy sauce, and superior stock. It is finished with freshly ground (and sifted) Szechuan peppercorn, which adds aroma and its trademark “tingly” feeling to the tongue. After lunch, the chicken, duck, and pork shoulder are disassembled and put back into the fridge overnight.
Day 4 – Places, Everyone. It’s Magic Time.
The first order of business is to break out the deep-fryer again – luckily, I recently purchased one from All-Clad. It actually has an oil filtration system which makes life much easier. The turnips, carrots, fresh bamboo shoots, and boiled quail eggs are getting deep-fried. I decided I would be cute and cut the carrots into what I thought were going to be flowers, but in the end resembled the sun on the cover of Sublimes, “40 Oz. To Freedom.”
While the veggies bubble away, it is time to soak the dried bamboo, and lotus leaves – and then turn the shower into a makeshift laundry line for them to dry on. In the meantime, I assume the role of what Uncle Roger would refer to as a “Wok Fuckboy,” by breaking out two of them at once. I give the birds and the pork – along with aromatics like cinnamon, star anise, and ginger, a good stir fry and set them aside. The scallions are also fried to impart flavor to the final broth. All of the meat from the woks goes into a large pot, along with “the” chicken stock, rock sugar, and soy sauce. The veggies get simmered for a few minutes in the Superior Stock.
Now it’s time to assemble –
Bamboo Leaves are elevated to prevent scorching – are arranged at the bottom and topped with the pig trotters. Then, the chicken, the duck, the pork shoulder, the white flower mushrooms, and the veggies. Lastly, the sea cucumber, dried scallop, fish maw (which had been soaked), and Serrano ham are wrapped in cheesecloth and tossed into the mix. Finally, the reserved broth and a whopping 5 cups of Shaoxing wine are added to the pot, brought up to a simmer, covered with a lotus leaf, and left to cook for two more hours.
During this time, the five sides are prepared, which are:
Bok Choy with the chicken fat-steamed mushrooms
Choi sum with the Serrano ham
Mustard green stems in sweet mustard sauce
Lotus root with pickled peach sauce
Steamed buns for the broth
After cooking, the lotus leaf is removed, and all of the meats and seafood are arranged on a platter. The soup is served in small bowls to sip between bites of the various meats. Let me tell you, there is NOTHING like this broth – the insanely rich texture and complex layers of flavor are absolutely phenomenal. Seriously.
The meat and vegetables, which have each seen multiple preparation steps before the final cook, are infused with the broth’s flavor and are excellent. The dried scallops are more important for imparting umami than consuming, and the sea cucumber – I’ll just take their word for the whole libido-enhancing thing. The last two elements are the Serrano ham – the fat on which has become rich and gelatinous, and the fish maw. This resembles tripe in texture and, like everything else, has been nicely infused with the flavor of the master soup. It looks kind of terrifying but tasted fine.
This dish takes about 4 days to make and then 20 minutes to consume at the end of the day. It is truly a labor of love. If the process isn’t equally important to you as the product, I would not recommend attempting Buddha Jumps Over The Wall. All in all, the total costs of the dish added up to around $400. However, if you feel bold and splurgy, I will include a recipe once the video episode becomes available. I can assure you that you will never have anything else like it – and who knows when the world will end, so what are you waiting for?
Photos and Forthcoming Episode Produced by Chris Loughran of No End Media LLC