A Buddhist's Delight

The Jakarta Tales speak of a Prince Siddartha who lived in golden splendor. He lounged with almond-eyed dancing girls on silk cushions and sat idly in the garden, listening to musicians delicately plucking chords. To satisfy His Majesty’s appetite, the royal kitchen always bubbled with activity as the kingdom’s finest chefs prepared an endless variety of dishes. But when Prince Siddartha left the walls of this paradise and saw the suffering around him, no longer did sweet meats soothe him. Instead, he took up a beggar’s bowl and walked the North Indian countryside asking those he encountered if they could spare some scraps of food for the Buddha. In the years to come, this wooden bowl would hold nothing fancier than parched rice and lentils. The Buddha’s diet had gone from magnificent to minimalist.

Despite the culinary path followed by their teacher, volunteers and members of the Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center (GBBCC) have struck a balance between decadence and the bare essentials. By serving Chinese food that is both modest and savory, the Tea House, a fundraising venture for the GBBCC, allows diners to enjoy simplicity and authenticity without sacrificing taste.

GBBCC has appeal beyond evenly steamed dumplings. Spiritualists can take sanctuary in the large meditation room, a carpeted space encircled by cushioned benches. Soft rolled-up mats sit neatly beside each cushion, and three glittering Buddha statues replete with white gemstones illuminate the room. Linguists can browse the shelves of the library, which contain Buddhist texts in both English and Chinese. Collectors of oddities will enjoy eyeing the objects up for sale in the bookstore: tea sets nestled in silk-lined boxes, sticks of mild-scented incense and jade decorations, in addition to the myriad of religious treatises. But in the midst of this spiritual and cultural immersion, the hungry man is by no means forgotten.

The Tea House does indeed serve tea—in abundance. The space that the GBBCC occupies was formerly a restaurant, and the skeleton of a bar behind the bookstore is now used as a tea stall, storing large plastic containers brimming with exotic varieties of tea: jasmine, fresh fruit, ginseng, oolong and others. Each pot of tea ($5) is accompanied with a bowl of salted peanuts, a western addition to a Chinese staple, and refills are unlimited. If you simply open the cover of the teapot, a server will immediately come by your table to add more. As Tony, our waiter, brings us the second pot of Jasmine tea, he instructs us not to pour out the tea immediately, but instead to “let the tea absorb the flavors.”

Drinking tea is a ritual, accompanied with sayings, wisdom from generations past and customs. Tony has instructed us on the right time to drink tea. Feng Chen ’06, one of my lunch companions, explains the Chinese belief that the second pot of tea is the best: the first pot is the strongest but contains tea impurities; the second pot, conversely, is cleaner yet still pleasantly strong in flavor.

But the Tea House is more than a Buddhist wonderland. Hearty, tasty vegetarian food is the highlight of the Tea House experience, equally appealing to the epicurean and the adventurer. There is a daily lunch special consisting of a soup, four vegetable dishes and rice ($5.95). The soup and the vegetable dish remain a secret until the pristine white china arrives topped with generous portions. Each day a new soup boils and different vegetables sizzle in the wok.

It is up to the Taiwanese chef to plan out the meal. On this Saturday afternoon, the soup of the day resembled the hot and sour soup of Chinese take-outs. However, the broth itself was surprisingly thin and mild-flavored. Tofu, carrots, coriander and honey suckle flower floated in my spoon. Upon finishing the soup, Tony brought out plates with a mound of rice in the middle surrounded by the four vegetable dishes: steamed bok choy, Napa cabbage and mushrooms cooked in their own broth, tofu in a creamy tomato sauce and imitation meat with diced potatoes and carrots.

I poke at the imitation meat with suspicion, unable to identify it by texture or taste. The menu had also proclaimed something called “vegetarian ham” and “vegetarian scallop.” Tony dismisses my apprehensions. “Here we cook the way Buddhists from Taiwan’s Fo Guang Shan sect cook,” he says. “The food is purely vegetarian. No dairy products, garlic or onions are used.” The omission of garlic and onions, a custom also practiced in strict vegetarian Hindu households, as those ingredients are considered aphrodisiac, has carried over into Buddhism.

Potatoes and tomatoes, both rare in mainstream Chinese restaurants, are common in a multitude of dishes at the Tea House. “Potatoes are used in Chinese cooking,” explains Chenwei Wu ’06, my other companion, who is well versed in Chinese home cooking. “But they are used so often that they are considered part of the common man’s food. Restaurants are expected to serve fancier dishes. The food here is much more like what we eat at home.”

“This is Chinese home cooking,” confirms Feng Chen. “This is just like what my mother makes.”

Aside from the surprise lunch specials, the Tea House does serve some familiar Chinese dishes. Dim sum ($3.50) is available, although the selection is limited compared to most Chinese restaurants. The steamed dumplings, a part of the dim sum menu, were unlike any others that I had eaten before. Inside the sticky wrapper sat ground tofu, finely minced bok choy and tiny pieces of vermicelli. Served with soy sauce, the dumplings were a light and refreshing addition to the meal. Our other dim sum order of turnip cakes was also equally delectable. Two pan-fried squares of rice flour, turnip gratings and chopped mushrooms were served with hoisin sauce. The turnip cakes were crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside, an interesting contrast heightened by dipping into the sharp-flavored hoisin sauce.

After the meal, we ordered yet another round of tea. This was our third pot, quite dull in color compared to our first. We reclined in the chairs and inhaled the sweet incense; the Buddha statues in a variety of positions and with a variety of expression gazed benevolently at us as we chatted away. The post-meal atmosphere of the Tea House is easygoing and laid back. Tony pulled up a chair to join us. He told us about his brother who was formerly a Buddhist and now a follower of the Falon Gong movement, his sister who was a non-practicing Buddhist and his elder sister, a Christian. “I guess I am a Buddhist by choice,” he says with a chuckle.

Besides the two female abbots who live at the GBBCC complex, all other staff members are volunteers. Tony works on weekends, helping in the kitchen, serving and organizing the place. “I now need to learn how to cook. The chef is amazing. But I’m even below a beginner!” he jokes.

Although lingering longer in the Tea House was tempting, we declined a fourth round of tea. Tony brought the check on a black tray that balanced individually wrapped fortune cookies. “Patience is a virtue,” mine read—an expected ending to an unexpected meal.

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