Cuisine: Chinese Buddhist vegetarian
Area: Meishuguan/Dafosi (just north of Wangfujing)
Price: 35-50 RMB per person
Chinese Buddhist monks and nuns don’t eat meat, nor do some lay Buddhists. So what do they eat? Their own, specialized cuisine, of course, which has been going since the 6th century AD!
As any modern vegetarian or vegan knows, not eating meat can create all kinds of problems. Should I go to that party, accept this invitation, go to that restaurant? Or personal dilemmas, like how can I live without bacon?
Buddhist chefs came up with a rather brilliant solution: inventing dishes that looked, smelled and tasted like meat…but were made from other things, mostly wheat gluten. That way, in theory, the meat-eaters and vegetarians could both be happy at the same table, and the vegetarians could still enjoy the “meat” dishes they once had.
We ran into Still Thoughts on a walk around the Art Museum, and decided to see how it all works in practice.
The atmosphere is brightly-lit and busy. There are shelves stacked with Buddhist texts. Our table was glass over a map of the world.
The menu is a fascinating read for someone who’s never encountered this kind of cooking before. The menu looks exactly like a typical, homestyle-type Chinese menu. They have Peking “Duck,” Sichuanese shuizhu “fish”. There’s nothing these chefs won’t attempt. We tried the pickles (very nice) and a “sausage” (二指禅), which seemed to be a popular item.
To me, the sausage tasted exactly like meat! It was spiced beautifully and had a nice umami richness. I’m amazed at the skill of the chefs that have pulled this off (especially after tasting what passes for mock meat in the West, aka Tofurkey). My companion was not as convinced, but truly enjoyed and ate most of it.
Next up was the “beef” and potato stew, which the waitress recommended. This was even more challenging – but when the dish turned up, it looked entirely convincing.
The meat tasted wonderful – exactly like beef! It turns out, though, that the hardest thing to imitate about meat is its texture. This “beef” had the texture of glutinous rice – if you’ve ever had mochi, you’ll recognize it. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the dish and, while it might bother others, I didn’t mind the texture at all.
To finish the meal, we had pumpkin soup – this was stunningly good. It was almost completely unspiced, in contrast to the “pumpkin pie” flavours I’m used to. It was lovely to enjoy that pure pumpkin flavour.
Of course, mock meat will never really be the same as real meat, but it does allow you to really enjoy the flavour of meat dishes with your compassion intact. If I were vegetarian, I would be here all the time – the atmosphere is pleasant (a monk or two even strolled by as we ate) and the food is well-prepared. The skill and invention required to make meat substitutes is dazzling, and the nerd in me loves to eat dinner and reach a centuries-old tradition all at once.
18A Dafosi Dongjie, Yuqun Hutong (turn right onto Yuqun from Dafosi, which continues from Meishuguan Dongjie), Dongcheng District
Open 10 am – 11 pm
See Dianping page for map and Chinese-language reviews.