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Buddha's Delights

by Susan Asanovic

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Fall Volume: 1994 Issue: 1(1) pages: 22 to 24

The ancient Chinese must have been the first 'foodies.' Passionate about cuisine, they integrated health, philosophical beliefs and religious customs into their dietary practices such as vegetarianism. Perhaps no other cul-ture has, for thousands of years, placed as much emphasis on the relationship of specific foods to health, well-being and longevity.

Very early in Chinese culture, in the early Tang dynasty, Buddhist temples cooks, specifically the Mahayana Buddhist, created famous simulations of meat, poultry and fish with solely plant-delivered foods. They were extremely clever at fashioning visual imitations of animal foods as well as giving these dishes poetic names such as River Shreds and Sproutsand Phoenix Facing Peony

Buddhism proscribes killing any animal for food. Milk products were rarely consumed because cattle were used only as draught animals. The Chinese vegetarians who are Buddhists have used only vegetables to create their artful imitation fish and shellfish dishes. Garlic, scallions, and ginger were traditionally excluded from temple cooking so as not to awaken earthly desires, which might distract scholars from prayer, meditation and study. (Hot peppers arrived much later and most likely would have been proscribed, too.) Indeed, Buddhists strove to put aside the 'seven emotions and six desires.' I, alas, will never find Nirvana as enlightenment is living in accordance with one's true nature.

Monks strenuous practitioners of martial arts. Since they supposedly abstained from meat, this contributed to vegetarianism's healthy reputation. Their temple foods were really austere dishes served in the temple and as they traveled as penitents gained popularity throughout society. When wealthy visitors came to renew their souls at these same temples, they were offered elaborate vegetarian versions of highly prized animal dishes; this may explain the various versions of their foods.

In the Sung era, rich, influential temples gave feasts on the occasion of Buddhist holidays, again featuring artful recreations of non-vegetarian favorites. Undoubtedly, many Abbots were quite gourmand and relished the "chicken, duck and pork" analogs. This contrasts to the feelings of some contemporary vegetarians who do not want to eat anything that resembles meat or fish in aspect or taste.

Today, in parts of Mainland China (especially Hangzhou), Hong Kong and Taiwan where a meal can cost over $100 per person, vegetarian restaurants are patronized as much for the enlightenment of delicious food as for health or for religious reasons. And, as in the past, Buddhist temples offer carefully prepared meals to visitors.

A surprising number of vegetarian Chinese restaurants (of more or less Buddhist persuasion) have opened recently in this country; perhaps due to the influx of chefs from Taiwan and Hong Kong who are devotees of this discipline. They can prove that vegetarianism does not automatically imply tasteless, albeit healthy meals. Unfortunately, some disappoint with overly oily, deep-fried, heavily salted food. When I see an array of "mystery stews" in varying shades of thick brown sauce, I run for the nearest exit!

There are four or five well-known restaurants in San Francisco, one in Philadelphia, Boston, and Houston (simply called the 'Wonderful Vegetarian Restaurant') which Like Vegetarian Paradise in New York City, manufacture their own delicious 'house gluten.' Also in New York are the Bamboo Garden, Veggie-Veggie, Zen Palate, and House of Vegetarian. Sometimes their dishes don’t reflect the best their chefs can do. So, for a taste of the 'real thing' along with an authentic renewal of the soul, have Sunday brunch close to New York City at the Chang Yen Temple in Carmel, New York (914-228-4615) or another Temple near you that serves similar food.

Thanks to an increasing availability of fresh oriental vegetables and new vegetarian products, including extruded soy-based nuggets, dry mixes, and vegetarian barbecue sauce, the dedicated and enterprising home cook can replicate those wonderful Temple creations. I recommend that you do just that to control the use of oil, salt, MSG, and other additives too often prevalent in some restaurants and in some American manufactured analogs.

Did you ever wonder if early Chinese temple cooks would recognize this factory food? I did. For me, perhaps the best, most rewarding ingredients are low-tech, traditional bean products, roots, tubers, fungi, grains, and vegetables, all of which sustained Buddha's early followers.

In China today, the population is adequately if not luxuriously nourished, with much less related morbidity than in developed countries. This has been attributed to their basically vegetarian, high-fiber, low-fat diet and their active life-style. One exception is their universal use of highly polished rice. Centuries ago, while white rice was a privilege of the wealthy, others settled for a less-refined and rougher but more nutritious grade containing more fiber, B vitamins, minerals, and oil.

Industrialized countries routinely consume more than twice the required amount of protein and many authorities feel that a high-protein diet can increase the risk of osteoporosis, cancer, kidney problems, and other degenerative diseases. Indeed, many of today's diets planned to reverse heart disease and other chronic ailments are based on many principles similar to the traditional Chinese diet, as are the new American food 'pyramids.'

Arm yourself with a wok and make Buddhist vegetarian food as simple or elaborate as you wish. Begin as a young monk or novice and work your 'Way of Tao' up to priestly expertise. Why? Because legend tells us, as Lin Hsian Ju and Lin Tsuifeng report in Chinese Gastronomy, published by Hastings House of NY in 1969, that Chin Sheng-tan, a famous writer and gourmet uttered these last words on his deathbed, "My son, always remember this: When you mix roasted peanuts with finely sliced seasoned pressed beancurd dipped in soy sauce and vinegar, it tastes exactly like the famous Chinhwa ham."

Be aware that Bhuddist vegetarians revere all living thing, including turtles so the Vegetarian Stewed Turtle recipe is a compassionate rendition of a favorite food with the dried mushrooms. It is light yet meaty in texture and has a mottling (in the high-quality winter variety) that resembles the turtle's shell. The lotus, often planted near temples, holds religious significance as a symbol of perpetual life. Recall that Buddha is sometimes pictured with a lotus leaf and think about the 'lotus' position in yoga. Eat this vegetable in the turtle dish and be relaxed knowing that lotus root, really a rhizome, as well as ginseng, licorice and other plant foods were used hundreds of years ago as they are today as preventative and curative medicines.

I suggest that you locate many English-language Chinese vegetarian cookbooks in book stores and in libraries. The most complete listing can be found in J. Newman's Chinese Cookbooks: An annotated English-Language Compendium, NY: Garland, 1987. Using that and more recent publications, I recommend cookery tomes such as S.L. Fessler's Chinese Meatless Cooking, NY: Plume Books, 1980; M. Gee's Longevity Chinese Cookbook, Rochester NY: Thorsons, 1987; F. Lin's Chinese Vegetarian Cookbook, Boulder CO: Shambala, 1976; M. Stidham's The Fragrant Vegetable, Los Angeles CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1986, I.T. Yen's How To Cook Chinese Vegetarian Dishes, Taipei, Taiwan: Tang's, 1979, and vegetarian items in N. Simonds' Classic Chinese Cuisine, Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1982. Also consult E.N. Anderson's The Food of China (1988) and K.C. Chang's Food in Chinese Culture (1977), both New Haven CT: Yale U. Press, A. Zee's Swallowing Clouds, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1990, and D. Reid's Chinese Herbal Medicine, Boston MA: Shambala, 1987 for background knowledge.

In the meantime, try the following recipes:

Vegetarian Stewed Turtle
12 dried shiitake mushrooms
8 oounces fresh lotus root
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
pinch of white pepper
2 teaspoons oil (optional)
4 ounces snow peas
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon rice wine or dry sherry
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1. Soak mushrooms in warm water for thirty minutes. Then squeeze, retaining 1 cup of mushroom water, and cut off their stems.
2. Peel lotus root and slice it thinly. Keep it in cold water to prevent darkening.
3. Blanch snow peas for two minutes, drain, rinse in cold water, re-drain, and reserve.
4. Mix cornstarch reserved mushroom water, wine, and half of the sugar.
1. Arrange mushrooms, then lotus root slices in shallow dish that fits in steamer. Cover with paper towel to absorb water, then steam for thirty minutes.
2. Boil cornstarch mixture until clear and pour over the lotus root mixture.
3. Arrange snow peas around this and serve.

Vegetarian Duck Soup with Tonic Flavor
half package or 1 and 1/2 ounces tonic mix
8 small pieces deep-fried gluten
pinch sugar
1/2 teaspooon white pepper
2 teaspoons light soy sauce
4 ounces winter bamboo shoots
2 teaspoons rice wine
1 or 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1. Soak tonic ingredients for fifteen minutes in cool water, then drain them.
2. Add one quart water and all ingredients except the sesame oil into a heavy three quart pot. Bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer covered for thirty minutes.
3. Add sesame oil and serve.

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