I love you, no discussion”, said the eggplant dish on the menu in a vegetarian restaurant run by Buddhist monks in China’s capital of the roast duck. The counterfeit chicken dish in the glossy foot-long menu introduced itself as ‘the heart has merciful thoughts’. The fish patties were a ‘cultivation of the heart’ and the turquoise tea fetchingly said it was a ‘fated meeting of two people’.
In the Mandarin Kingdom, there is no Chinese word for vegetarian. To order a meat-free meal (no guarantees here) you can drone a Mandarin list that roughly translates: I don’t eat no meat, no chicken, no fish, no dog, no cow…whatever meat there is, I don’t want it. Or just pretend to be a Buddhist, a believer in ahimsa (non-violence).
Over the months, both my attempts had failed. While my companions ate shredded jellyfish or meat, I got six little florets of boiled broccoli and two cabbage leaves to avoid dishes with animal fat or meat plucked out of the gravy.
As Starbucks, the overpriced US coffee chain ate my savings, I decided to hunt down the ancient alleys or hutong where peace-loving monks make mock meat. Like all expertly faked Chinese replicas, their secret recipes make soya, tofu and wheat gluten look and taste like roast duck, shark fin, beef steak and, even intestines.
Something fishy in it
The first stop was Pure Lotus, a costly veggie restaurant that serves meals without garlic, onion or preservatives, amid silk divans and Tibetan decor. Its costliest tea, named after a six-syllable Buddhist mantra costs about 200 dollars a pot.
Vegetarianism in China is not about vegetables so the seasonal stuff was unavailable. We asked for broccoli and got cauliflower. “White broccoli,” said the fast-thinking waiter. Soon, fish-shaped tofu (beancurd) with two beady eyes arrived wrapped in steaming foil, and the waitress carved it solemnly, her silk sleeves rolled back. Every bite tasted so fishy that the vegetarian in me rebelled.
The next time, I ordered pumpkin soup and soya patties because the seasonal vegetables were, yes, out of season. “It tastes like beef steak,” the waiter bragged. I put down my fork.
I tried the second branch of this restaurant. “The owners don’t do interviews,” said the staff, also stopping me from taking photographs or scribbling details from the menu.
I would have been annoyed, but the Buddhist quote on my table lectured: ‘Getting angry is actually punishing ourselves for the mistakes of others.’ The drama ended soothingly with fruit on the house, in a bowl of wispy dry ice that covered the table in clouds.
The Buddha’s bowl
The next stop was Baihe, a roomy courtyard eatery hidden in a hutong. My Indian friends who are Beijing veterans warned I would get lost. But my taxi driver found the unnamed alley, while the veterans finally abandoned taxis, helplessly darted in and out of dark alleys and showed up exhausted. “We are promoting living all beings harmoniously,” Baihe’s menu said, before listing braised pork balls and vegetarian Peking duck. But, after 15 excitable minutes gesturing for vegetables without the staple mushroom and eggplant, the stressed out waiters served a decent pot of mixed vegetables in a thick, spicy gravy.
Then, after losing my way thrice, I found Bodhi Sake, a former Buddhist temple garden where the monks stored coffins. Today, in several nooks beside a pomegranate tree, it serves kebabs on skewers with blessings etched on them, and carrot peels with ‘refreshing’ sauce. No thanks.
There was a sour vegetarian bacon belly named ‘Wealthy Life’ and vegetarian beef jerky named ‘Lingering Aftertaste’. We also ignored the fungus soup called ‘Buddha’s Distraction’, and a vegetarian chicken leg called ‘Buddha’s Omnipotence’. There was also ‘Root of Wisdom’ — the menu bragged it was vegetarian but tasted ‘exactly like intestines’. So, we just settled for tea.