Zen Mindful Eating for Buddha’s Birthday

While the news points to bat-eating habits of some Chinese as the unverified origins of the Corona virus, there is in fact a long tradition of having vegetarian food in China.

Chinese Buddhists (including the royal empire in ancient China) formed a habit of having vegetarian food which was light, easy on the stomach and steeped in religious beliefs. The Chinese Buddhist vegetarian food sought to imitate meat in taste and appearance by using soy-based foodstuff and variations of mushrooms. One can say that it was one of the first advocates of mock meat, now re-invented and re-marketed into a hip food like Beyond Meat.

30 Apr this year is Buddha’s birthday. To celebrate this day we present to you some Chinese Buddhist vegetarian dishes to try. For those of you who are not good with cooking or looking for an excuse to eat out, we list some Buddhist veggie eateries on the HK Island for you to try. Read on and enjoy 😊!

So, one of the main Chinese Buddhist vegetarian dishes is Buddha’s Delight (aka Luo Han Zhai 罗汉斋) . Legend has it that 18 monks (monks are called Luo Han in ancient Chinese) wanted to test the goddess Kwan Yin in her temple. The 18 monks shouted “We are so hungry, we’re practically starving” in the goddess’s temple. The goddess’ statue blinked and she delivered a hot dish of Buddha’s Delight for the monks to enjoy. In return, the monks gave the vegetarian food that they obtained from villagers to the goddess. The traditional Buddha’s Delight dish has 18 ingredients to represent the 18 monks, which ingredients are 3 types of mushrooms, 6 types of fungi and 9 types of shoots.

Buddha’s Delight with Fried Noodles

A key ingredient in Chinese Buddhist vegetarian dishes is the bamboo shoot. This can be found mainly in Shanghai grocery shops in Hong Kong or in the spring time in wet markets floating in water in buckets. Bamboo shoots are easy to cook and are high in fibre. Stewed bamboo shoots with soya sauce is a well-loved delicacy during spring. Story has it that bamboo shoots were the favourite ingredient of the ancient Chinese poet and food connoisseur, Su Shi (aka Su Dongbo). One day, he was appalled at some monks drying bamboo shoots in the sun to braise them later. Su Shi stopped them from wasting such fresh bamboo shoots and proceeded to write a recipe book about cooking bamboo shoots and gave the book to those monks. The favourite dish of the monks in the recipe book was stewed bamboo shoots.

Pipa Tofu at the top left-hand corner, sweet and sour tofu at the bottom and mushrooms yam noodle on the right from Ms. Lee’s restaurant in Central.

Pipa tofu is a favourite dish featured not only in Buddhist vegetarian restaurants but also in general Chinese restaurants. A mixture of tofu, chopped mushrooms, carrots and flour is deep fried then served with a vegetarian oyster sauce. It’s crispy and flavourful at the same time. The dish is named after the pipa, a Chinese wooden musical instrument because the crispy tofu mixture is supposed to be shaped like the pipa after deep frying.

Finally, if you just want a taste of Chinese vegetarian food without going to a restaurant or home cooking, there is a snack shop that sells mainly Chinese vegetarian snacks called Chan Yee Jai (陳意齋). Try the sweet dried hawthorn snack which is traditionally given out at Chinese medicine shops to children to entice them to drink the bitter Chinese medicine. Crispy peanuts made with peanut, deep fried in egg, cornstarch and salt is also a great snack.

Places to try Buddhist vegetarian foods:

  1. Pure Veggie House

Address: 51 Garden Road, Central

  1. Po Lin Yuen Vegetarian Food

Address: No. 308 Queen’s Road West, Sai Wan

  1. Tung Fong Siu Kee Yuen

Address: G/F, 241 Hennessy Road, Wanchai

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