Variations on a Buddhist theme

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 October, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 October, 1995, 12:00am

SINCE the Ming dynasty, the Buddhist temple has been a focus for Chinese vegetarian food.

Regardless of the location of the temple, whether in large cities or in remote mountain locations, worshippers and tourists alike may partake in a vegetarian meal in the restaurant attached to the temple.

I always find it curious why many of the dishes still reflect the tastes and names of meat or fish dishes, instead of a completely different set of names, relinquishing altogether any association with the carnal past.

Hence the menu lists dishes that are the same as their meaty counterparts except for the prefix zhai (vegetarian) in front of each dish: zhai roast goose or zhai fish slices.

The strictest Chinese vegetarian rules list only certain vegetables or vegetarian products.

Hence, on the 'A' list are vegetables, legumes, mushrooms and fungi, bean curd and related products, including soy sauce and other fermented bean condiments, and wheat gluten, the protein-rich fraction of wheat flour.

What is 'out' are all aromatic plants such as garlic, spring onions, onions, leeks, chives and coriander because these presumably arouse sensuous desires.

With all these restrictions, a strictly vegetarian Buddhist diet would seem to be ideal for the smart cook of the 90s.

Not so. One reason is the liberal use of oils, albeit of vegetable origin, in the preparation of many typical dishes.

But this can be corrected with a little modification of basic cooking methods. Starting with a basic vegetable stock, preparing vegetarian dishes without any added fat is a simple matter.

One of the real adjuncts to Chinese cooking is a good stock for bringing out the flavours of the dish. Here is a recipe for a flavourful stock which may be used for any purpose.

Once prepared, it may be kept frozen indefinitely, or, if refrigerated, for a week (but boil once during the storage period).

Vegetarian Broth 14 cups (3.4 litres) water 2 tsp (10 ml) salt 1 cup (250 ml) yellow dal; cleaned, washed, and drained 10 black mushrooms, rehydrated 2 carrots, cleaned and chopped into large pieces 1 tsp (5 ml) olive oil 5 slices ginger 1 medium onion, quartered 1.5 kg bean sprouts, washed and drained 2 tbs (30 ml) light soy or Maggi sauce 2 tsp (10 ml) corn flour Bring water in stockpot to boil. Add salt, dal, black mushrooms, and carrots; return to boil, lower heat to slow simmer, cover.

Heat oil in non-stick pan or wok; add ginger and stir fry briefly. Add onions to wok at highest heat; add salt and stir fry until translucent and slightly browned; remove to stock pot. Add sprouts to wok and sprinkle with corn flour and Maggi sauce.

Continue cooking until all liquid is absorbed, then transfer to stockpot. Simmer at lowest heat for two or more hours; dal should dissolve. Turn off heat, cool and strain. Refrigerate and decant liquid away from the dal sediment; use sediment for thick sauces.

Yields about 2.5 litres (or 10 cups).

Spicy Tofu (Serves 4 to 6) 1 tsp (5 ml) olive oil 1 tbs (30 ml) fermented black beans; washed, drained, coarsely chopped 1 tsp (5 ml) garlic, minced 1 tsp (5 ml) ginger, minced 1 tbs (30 ml) broadbean paste with chili and garlic 1/2 cup (125 ml) vegetable stock 1 green onion, chopped 3 pieces tofu, each cut into four equal cubes 1 tsp (5 ml) corn flour dissolved in 1 tbs (15 ml) stock 1 tsp (5 ml) Sichuan peppercorn, roasted and ground Heat oil in non-stick pan; add fermented black beans and stir fry. Add garlic and ginger and continue stir-frying.

Add broadbean paste and stir-fry about 15 seconds. Add stock, then tofu; cover and bring to boil then lower to simmer for three minutes covered. Thicken with cornflour mixture; then add Sichuan peppercorn powder and green onions. Cover and let simmer one additional minute. Toss and scoop immediately into serving dish.

This tofu dish is delightfully hot and contains very little added oil, unlike the restaurant versions which are always bathed in pools of red oil.

This dish can be prepared in strictly vegetarian style or with minced chicken or minced pork added.