Saturday, June 01, 2013

What's Cooking at our House: Spicy Buddha's Feast

Spicy Buddha's Feast may change your conception of vegetarian cuisine.


Given the growing number of vegetarians, it's a good idea to have some signature vegetarian dishes for dinner parties. One of ours is Spicy Buddha's Feast. Buddhist monks do not eat meat, and so the classic Buddhist diet is entirely vegetarian. In China, there is a rich classical history of nuanced, varied meatless cuisine.

As the ingredients of Spicy Buddha's Feast are only vegetables (no dairy or egg), vegans can enjoy it as well.


We use the recipe from Barbara Tropp's seminal classic on Chinese cuisine, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking (Used copies are available.)

Initially a student of Chinese language and history, Tropp pursued her interest in the nation's culinary offerings by going to Taiwan in the late 1970s to learn from master chefs (at that time, it was not yet possible to visit mainland China). This cookbook, published in 1982, broke new ground as a result of Tropp's grasp of the philosophy of China and its cuisine: the balancing of flavors and textures, yin and yang, etc.

As a general rule, most of what Americans knew as Chinese food came from the region around Hong Kong (Canton). The many other styles of Chinese cooking were largely unknown. Tropp's book demystified the incredible wealth of traditions and styles beyond Cantonese.

Tropp's recipes result in the real deal, dishes that satisfy discerning native-born Chinese palates with their authentic flavors and ingredients. To say that this Buddha's Feast surpasses 99% of any restaurant version is not hyperbole (if you can even find it on the menu).

Spicy Buddha's Feast is a labor of love, as it contains many ingredients and requires a lot of prep time, slicing vegetables, rehydrated dried mushrooms, etc., and the authentic version demands a trip to the Asian Market for ingredients such as glass noodles and curried braised gluten (mock meat). The kind of vegetables you include can vary within the basic framework of the recipe.

The nice thing about this dish is the actual stir-frying of all the ingredients is relatively quick and unfussy; it's a fairly forgiving process.

This dish is so hearty and flavorful that it's a one-dish meal.

Here's what Tropp has to say about this rendition of a classic recipe (page 299):
In its standard form the dish includes soft ginko nuts, black mushrooms, tangles of hair-fine seaweed and soy-seasoned wheat gluten, all in a mild and unscintillating brown sauce. Not much of a feast! This rendition is heretically different. It is very colorful and also highly spiced--the path to my own culinary illumination being frequently strewn with chilies. 
This is a dish that makes broad use of canned and dried ingredients--all excellent and easily available in Asian markets. Lest the list of ingredients daunt you, be assured that most things Buddhist are invitingly flexible.
As someone who formally studied Chinese philosophy in university and has remained a student of its culture and history in the decades since, I can also assure you that preparing and consuming this dish introduces you to the essence of Chinese philosophy-- not just of cooking but of life, if you are attuned to the contrasting and complementary nature of its flavors, colors and textures.

Cooking opens doors to understanding unavailable to the passive diner, just as gardening opens doors to experiences and insights unavailable to those who only buy fresh produce at markets or buy meals at restaurants.

If this dish is daunting largely because its ingredients and steps are new to you, use Emerson as a guide: Do the thing and you shall have the power. That's a pretty good summary of Taoist philosophy as well....



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