Buddhist cuisine

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Cuisine of China

Eight Great Traditions
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Buddhist cuisine is known as 齋菜 (pinyin: zhāi caž) among Chinese.


Two types of restrictions

Reincarnation - or more properly, rebirth - is one basic tenet of Buddhism, and this includes rebirth of humans as other animals, and vice-versa. As a result, many Buddhists do not kill animals, and many also do not eat meat. Other common reasons cited are that killing animals and/or eating their meat are a violation of the Five Precepts and bad for one's own karma, and because of a compassion for other animals. Many vegetarian Buddhists are not vegan, but for those who are vegan, such beliefs are often due to objections about the circumstances in which the animals producing products such as milk and eggs are raised.

Some Mahayana Buddhists in China and Vietnam also avoid eating strong-smelling plants such as onion, garlic, chives, shallot, and leek, and refer to these as wu hun (五葷, "Five Spices"). The theory behind this Buddhist dietary restriction is that these vegetables have strong flavours which are supposed to excite the senses and thus represent a burden to Buddhists seeking to control their desires. Another explanation is that these are all root crops, and harvesting them requires killing organisms in the soil. It is unclear which is the correct explanation, if indeed there is one.

Only for some Buddhists

There are no universally agreed-upon rules for permitted and unpermitted foods in Buddhism. In some regions, it's common for monks to eat no meat, but for the laity to, or for the laity to abstain when they visit a monastery. But even some Buddhist monks will eat meat. A majority of Buddhist traditions believe the Buddha himself taught that food offered as charity to monks and nuns should not be refused, unless the killing was done specifically for the monks and nuns. However, other traditions believe this to be innacurate, and that the Buddha was strictly vegetarian. It is also common for Buddhists in some regions to believe that vegetarianism is better for their karma than eating meat, but to eat meat anyway and consider it something of a bad habit, and in other areas, such as Japan, vegetarianism and avoidance of wu hun foods are not a large part of Buddhism.

It is worth noting when debating the details of the Buddha's teachings that there existed no written language in India at the time of the historical Buddha. Furthermore, it is widely believed and accepted (if not wholly accepted) that the Buddha's final words were "Be a light unto thyself". The combination of these two facts/beliefs have lead to a general agreement that it is more important for the individual to make their choices along the path for themselves. Vegetarianism is thus one of the most contraversial aspects of Buddhism, with the teachings of compassion and Karma being the only real guides for the practitioner. The conflicting aspects of compassion, being the humility to accept whatever is offered while simultaenously not wanting to cause suffering unto sentient beings, is not likely to be easily resolved.

Vegetarian restaurant buffet, Taipei, Taiwan. July 2003
Vegetarian restaurant buffet, Taipei, Taiwan. July 2003

Common sources for Buddhist foods

Buddhist vegetarian chefs have become extremely creative in imitating meat using gluten, tofu, agar, and other plant products. Some of their recipes are the oldest and most-refined versions of meat-analogues in the world. Soy and pressed wheat gluten (seitan, or wheat-meat) are very versatile materials, because they can be manufactured into various shapes and textures, and they absorb flavourings, whilst having very little flavour of their own. With the proper seasonings, they can mimic various kinds of meat quite closely.

Some of these Buddhist vegetarian chefs are in the many monasteries which serve mock-meat (and sometimes non-wu hun) dishes to the monks and visitors, including the public.

Many Buddhist restaurants also serve vegetarian and/or non-wu hun dishes. Some Buddhists eat vegetarian only once per month or on special occasions such as annual visits to the ancestor's graves. To cater to this type of customer, as well as vegetarians, the menu of a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant usually shows no difference from a typical Chinese or far-Eastern restaurant, except that it is a full menu of "meat" dishes made using meat analogues.

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