Tofu and War Gods

Buddha’s Delight

Dried Ingredients

  • 6 Nami black mushrooms
  • 2 Bean curd sticks
  • 2 oz bean thread noodles
  • 4 Lily buds
  • 4 Wood ear black fungi

Fresh/Canned Ingredients

  • 2 stalks Celery
  • 2 cups Mung bean sprouts
  • 2 medium Carrots
  • 1/2 cup canned ginkgo nuts
  • 1/2 cup canned Baby corn
  • 1 Bell pepper
  • 2 leaves Napa cabbage
  • 2 cakes pressed bean curd
  • 1/2 cup Bamboo shoots

Other Ingredients

  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 Square fermented bean curd
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 2 Tbsp sesame oil
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp medium sherry

Rinse and soak bean curd sticks overnight; rinse and soak other dried ingredients 1 hour. Cut bean curd sticks and lily buds into 2″ sections.

Remove hard stems of the wood ear fungi, and thinly slice caps. Remove stems from black mushrooms and slice caps in half. Cut soaked bean thread noodles into 3″ pieces. Halve baby corn. Wash and blanch bean sprouts, celery and pepper. Slice celery, pepper, carrots, and cabbage into thin, 2″ long pieces. Slice pressed bean curd same size as vegetables. Deep-fry in shallow oil until slightly browned. Drain. Mash fermented bean curd, then blend with sugar, soy, sherry and 1 Tbsp water to make liquid mixture.

Heat wok to medium. Add 4 Tbsps deep-frying oil. Add bamboo shoots and all dry ingredients except noodles and stir-fry 1 minute. Turn wok to high. Add fresh/canned ingredients and salt, and stir-fry 2 more minutes. Add liquid mixture. Add noodles. Reduce heat to medium, cover wok, and steam for 5 minutes. Uncover, sprinkle in sesame oil. Toss lightly and serve. Serves six.

Buddha’s Delight is so named because it is vegetarian and has (more or less) eighteen ingredients, reminiscent of the eighteen arhans.

Food and Buddhism are two of my strongest attachments, so it’s no wonder that I’m so fond of 18 Arhans, a unique vegetarian restaurant that doubles as a Buddhist temple. You can find a small altar in many Chinese restaurants, usually a red plastic thing with a couple electric candles and some plastic fruit. But nowhere else can you be served by a Buddhist nun while you dine next to a bonafide shrine to a giant War Bodhisattva.

From outside on the street it’s easy to overlook this little place on the northern edge of Chinatown. Inside, it looks even smaller. The menu boasts seating for 12, but there are only seven stools at the one-foot-wide wooden counter. The décor ranges from an elegant collection of traditional teakettles to a cell phone-wielding plastic monk that looks suspiciously like a dog’s chew toy. Small signs on the wall extol the medicinal value of green tea, various herbs, and vegetables. Who knew that broccoli is the best defense against bladder cancer? There are also calligraphies hanging next to the stove, and signs warning that pets, smoking and alcohol are not allowed, and that there are no chopsticks or restrooms available. Technically it’s illegal to run a restaurant in NYC without a bathroom, but no matter — everything is tasty and cheap. Every dish on the menu costs exactly $5, no more, no less.

Despite names like “Ham Omelet” and “Chicken Nugget,” all the food served at 18 Arhans is 100% vegetarian, in keeping with common Chinese Buddhist codes of proper moral behavior. It’s ironic that the Chinese have perhaps the most diverse palate in history, eagerly consuming everything from bird’s nests to snake meat to, yes, dog, yet at the same time China is the largest stronghold of Buddhist vegetarianism, where the first precept — non-harming — is often interpreted as requiring that believers not eat meat. Some people go so far as to buy animals otherwise destined for the cooking pot and release them into the wild, a practice that’s encouraged by many Chinese temples in New York. The result is that Central Park’s ponds are overrun with grateful non-native turtles and goldfish rescued from Chinatown markets.

For a hole in the wall, 18 Arhans has a pretty good list of various dishes on its menu, meaning you can enjoy a different meal every day for a month. I’m partial to the BBQ “pork” with broccoli, but actually all of their fake meats, which are made from soy, wheat gluten, or mushrooms, are delicious and filling — even hardcore carnivores are likely to find the chewy fake meats and flavorful sauces satisfying. Avoiding the unfortunate trend of charging extra for rice, you’ll get mounds of sticky white rice with every non-noodle dish. One note of caution: Although you can’t go wrong with the meals at 18 Arhans, some of the snacks for sale are best left alone — unless you were actually raised on the other side of the Pacific, you likely won’t enjoy the cloying taste of salty seaweed with peanuts, for instance.

Your hostess at 18 Arhans is Shi Jin Shi, a short Chinese Buddhist nun with a shaved head and traditional monastic attire. She’s unexpectedly warm and funny, handing out crackers spontaneously and joking that her real name is “E.T., though I don’t phone home yet.”

Shi Jin Shi used to live at a local Chinese Buddhist temple. Then a new monk from Taiwan was brought in, who showed her the “black face” three times. She took the hint and left; he departed the next year in tumultuous circumstances himself. By then Shi Jin Shi had started 18 Arhans with Nancy Li (who does the cooking), a local friend and businesswoman, and wasn’t looking to go back.

The word “arhan” in the restaurant’s title is another term for arhat, a Buddhist sage who has achieved nirvana. Regarded as original students of Shakyamuni Buddha, the eighteen arhans supposedly promised him they’d wait for Maitreya, the next Buddha, before retiring, so that people could have someone to direct prayers to. Having entered the vast pantheon of popular Chinese deities, they are widely admired as aides to the poor and bringers of rain.

But the real patron saint of 18 Arhans is Guan Gong, an actual historical figure (160-219 C.E.) who played an important role in China’s Three Kingdoms period. The back half of the restaurant is roped off and given over as a shrine to him. People place offerings of oranges, bananas, crackers, or incense on a low table before the various statues of him and his friends. One might expect that a tiny, vegetarian Buddhist nun would’ve created a shrine to someone like Guanyin, the kindly female bodhisattva of compassion. Instead, she chose Guan Gong, a giant man with a two-foot-long flowing beard and a flaming red face, a great general and warrior who carried a huge sword and participated in continuous wars until his execution by enemy forces. His image conveys everything that Westerners never associate with Buddhism: violence, rage, martial strength, bloodlust. To the Confucians he is the God of War, and the Taoists regard him as the God of Wealth, while the Buddhists count him as a genuine bodhisattva. What’s he doing in a vegetarian joint run by a diminutive Buddhist nun?

Perhaps it’s not entirely a coincidence that the massive Police Building looms over the restaurant directly on the other side of Centre Street. Guan Gong’s image is common in police stations throughout China and Vietnam, where he’s also seen as the embodiment of loyalty, strength, bravery, and justice. His fans believe that his true aim in making war was to protect the weak and eliminate aggressors so that peace might come to the land. Maybe this is why he has come to reside in Shi Jin Shi’s little restaurant — immigrants in a country that has always distrusted the Chinese and which is suddenly very protective of the homeland, she and many of her patrons could use a strongman watching their backs.

Pushing past the diners at the counter, the believers who come to 18 Arhans pray to Guan Gong for health, physical protection, and atonement. But there’s no ignoring Guan Gong’s two-handed sword that has been menacingly reproduced on the wall by the shrine. Mounted on a long pole, it’s illustrated with fierce dragon motifs and has a gourd, a good omen in Chinese folklore, hanging from its blade. At a mere seven feet tall, it’s apparently a pale imitation of the original weapon. “Guan Gong’s sword was really nine feet tall, too tall to fit in this room,” Shi Jin Shi says. In other words, about twice as tall as she is. Looking at the “junior” version, one suspects this restaurant/temple hasn’t had to worry much about armed robberies.

I come to 18 Arhans for the food and the company, and I’ve yet to leave an offering for Lord Guan. I’m not sure I’m ready to bow before a Buddha of War. But maybe I should reconsider my rudeness — perhaps some enlightened guidance is just what our own military could use these days (to say nothing of the NYPD) in their quest for “justice.” If I do end up offering Guan Gong some incense, it’s likely to be more out of thankfulness for watching over this unusual restaurant, than any genuine desire for protection. As long as he keeps it safe for me to go on on eating their mock chicken and vegetables with brown sauce, I’ll say a little prayer, even if I still don’t want to sit too close to his sword.

Jeff Wilson is an assistant professor of religious
studies and East Asian studies in Ontario. His most recent books include: Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (Oxford University Press 2009) and Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness (Wisdom Publications 2009). His next book, with University of North Carolina Press, will examine Buddhism in the American South.