Zach once encouraged me to join him for Sunday mass at an Orthodox church in East Los Angeles, a trip he would make whenever his grandparents were in town. He knew that I had nothing to gain in terms of salvation. He also knew, however, that my ears would perk at the mention of anyone’s grandmother cooking Eastern European food outside of her own kitchen. It was no secret to him that I believe houses of ethnic worship to often be the best sources of food; they isolate the best aspect of my favorite restaurants and diners – a generation of unfiltered, unrefined culinary practice – and literally plant them at God’s gas burners. I laughed then at his offer of Polish-inflected Russian cuisine, mainly because of how obvious it would be that I had shown my face in Silverlake’s house of the Eastern Lord solely to feast on blessed borsch and consecrated kotleti.
I didn’t laugh when my friend Coolleen invited me last week to visit the Chieu Kien Buddhist Center, an outpost of Buddhist Vietnam nestled between the predominantly Puerto Rican, Dominican and black American neighborhoods of Tremont and Belmont in the Bronx. By then, the pointers of Dave Cook (in my opinion, the single best resource for food recommendations in New York City) had shown me just how easy it is in New York to eat my way through a series of international buffets. Queens in particular offers a revolving door of temple meals and community events that highlight food as a tasty gateway to culture; thanks to the openness and appetite of the immigrant community, that kitchen door is almost always open for the open-minded.
I found myself in the backyard of the Chieu Kien temple, a building whose elegant chambers of worship and reflection are all but invisible from its unassuming perch on Clinton Ave. Watching an audacious Vietnamese pre-schooler hop up the steps leading to the center’s pristine garden, I cradled a meager yet generous dish of free food, prepared and served by the order of live-in monk Thich Thien Chi.
Thien Chi, who established the practice of cooking for all who pay their respects at the temple on weekends, has built up a savory magnet for the Bronx’s Vietnamese community, which, according to a recent New York Times report on budding noodle shops, is slowly making itself known in relatively new territory. Incorporating the natural attraction of a hot, home-cooked meal into Sunday services is his way of providing a backbone for this growth.
It’s also the Buddhist monk’s way of putting pounds on the scales of karma. All food served on the house in Chieu Kien’s basement draws its strength from do chay, Vietnam’s extension of Buddhist Cuisine. In Buddhist cooking, be it in China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan or Vietnam, vegetarianism is the norm, making strictly vegetarian diets in these increasingly meat-seeking countries practically synonymous with observance of Buddhist beliefs.
I don’t have to be adherent to the principles of Thien Chi’s Buddhist vegetarianism to enjoy the vegetarian dishes served at the Chieu Kien temple. After all, many forms of Asian cooking are rooted in the pleasures of near-vegetarian recipes. Each plate of rice tossed with sauteed vegetables and marinated tofu, seasoned with a few dashes of pepper and brightened with the addition of sweet, sour, pickled cabbage, passed on the virtues of a cuisine whose practices make simple vegetables an essential part of everyday cooking.
More exciting do chay dishes were absent from the offerings, but they were surely not missed. As styrofoam cups of never-cooling green tea hit the table and the static field of plastic picnic tables prickled the hairs on my arms, I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Temple volunteers trotted out multiple dishes from the kitchen, setting the feast I had always envisioned for a neighboring table; in addition to large bowls of vegetables and rice, they laid out plates of fresh cabbage, bowls of hot vegetable broth, a rosy-looking pasta platter and several desserts, including fried puffs of chewy rice flour and flat, pastel-hued rice cakes.
While we peeled ripe oranges for dessert, a friend suggested that we had arrived too late to try all of the dishes on offer. Wondering if I’d be able to make mass in Silverlake in December, I wasn’t convinced I had earned the privilege of returning for another serving. By the graces of Thich Thien Chi and his congregants, I was able to experience a taste of Buddhist cuisine in the Bronx. To become a regular in the temple basement – or at any other temple’s hallowed mess, for that matter – I’ll have to believe in more than the glories of good taste.
Chieu Kien Buddhist Center
2011 Clinton Ave.
Bronx, New York 10457
Lunch served gratis in the basement during Sunday service; donations accepted