Bite-Sized Buddhism

by James Boo on October 12, 2010 · 7 comments

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Weekend Lunch at the Chieu Kien Buddhist Center - 2011 Clinton Ave - Bronx, NY
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.

Chieu Kien Buddhist Center - 2011 Clinton Ave - Bronx, NY
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.

Weekend Lunch at the Chieu Kien Buddhist Center - 2011 Clinton Ave - Bronx, NY
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.

Weekend Lunch at the Chieu Kien Buddhist Center - 2011 Clinton Ave - Bronx, NY
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, NY

Chieu Kien Buddhist Center
2011 Clinton Ave.
Bronx, New York 10457

Lunch served gratis in the basement during Sunday service; donations accepted


Nicholas October 14, 2010 at 12:16 am

As someone who was raised in a predominantly Buddhist household, I’ve been around my fair share of fully vegetarian meals. When done properly, I think a lot of people would find the necessity for meat in their meals to wane (and I love me an awesome pork sandwich or burger), and some of the best vegetarian meals have come from within the confines of temples. Props to you for embracing the moment and trying it :D

Additionally, they sometimes execute tofu dishes better than the original meat based renditions because of the effort required in preparation and desire to satisfy the niche.

James Boo October 14, 2010 at 11:39 pm

I totally agree, and if I make it out to Taiwan and HK, Buddhist food is definitely on my list of must-tries. It’s taken me a while to really appreciate the diversity and chameleon-like powers of tofu, and I am loving it.

Mai November 11, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Yeah, as a meat lover I must say that a well seasoned chunk of wheat gluten can be more satisfying than the real thing it’s imitating. Do chay in Saigon is elevated to a relatively expensive business (compared to other VN food), where you can find flavor-packed faux shrimp and chicken and even goat. I think that kinda defeats the purpose of Buddhist practice, but man it’s good!

James Boo November 11, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Another point: wheat gluten and tofu have gone through so much refinement that they don’t even need to pretend they’re imitating meat! I’m still firmly in the camp against fake meat and for real vegetables, so I tend to see gluten and bean curd in their own category :)

Mai November 11, 2010 at 5:58 pm

I disagree. :) I don’t think it’s possible to separate gluten from fake meat, because the variety of glutens comes about from the idea of faking meat. Now, any 5-year-old would know that fake chicken or fake shrimp are not real chicken and real shrimp, the texture is always different. So when I eat fake meat I don’t evaluate it based on how similar it is to meat, but simply how good it is. However, shrimp gluten and chicken gluten are different from each other, mainly because of the architecture of the piece, which depends on what kind of meat it’s meant to imitate. So perhaps for lack of better words, I don’t know how to refer to those glutens without calling them shrimp or chicken.

James Boo November 11, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Mai – thanks for the explanation. I need more schooling on the history of gluten!

Thoai Lien December 29, 2010 at 4:23 am

Artificial, tasty varieties made from flour or gluten used in vegetarian dishes aimed to offer “meat-eaters” an alternative way to lavish healthier food since they are certainly fat-free, especially if they are made to serve those who fast in a “Buddhist Way”.
At Chieu Kien Temple, Rev. Thich Thien Chi’s purpose is to teach his followers to abtain from “animal slaughtering” — whether directly or indirectly. Thus, he devoted himself in cooking and serving vegetarian dishes to the temple-goers to train them to fast on the basic of “fasting one meal” means “one-less animals being killed”… a way to reiterate one of the Five Principles that “Thou Shall Not Kill” dogma.

Eating artificial “gluten” so to compare with real meat would defy the “fasting” purpose. But… who knows… it could mean “all roads lead to Rome” at the end.

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